With the ’80s back in vogue, bands like the Faint getting worldwide attention, and synthesizers part of nearly every rock outfit nowadays, I can’t help but feel a bit downtrodden. Sure, the generation of my youth making a comeback is great news — there’s finally a market for my extra copy of Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600 on eBay — but something was missing: the dynamic British rock in the tradition of the Smiths, as opposed to Britpop in the tradition (for lack of a better word) of say, Blur or the Verve. You know: The kind of music that anchored every John Hughes film.
At long last, it’s here. Clearlake’s Cedars makes you feel like stealing your best friend’s father’s Ferrari, sliding across the newly-waxed floors of your school, yanking Molly Ringwald out of detention, and having a tumultuous teen relationship with her that ends on a bittersweet note. It’s uplifting, it’s sad, it’s witty, it’s depressing, and it’s fun. Singer Jason Pegg invokes the timbre of the Smiths’ Morrisey and treads some similar thematic ground — temperamental pop music filled with the spectrum of emotion, winding down the paths of both happiness and doubt — but Clearlake is a force unto itself.
On the driving gem "Almost the Same," Pegg croons "It only goes to show you can’t tell how it ends." Some behaviors remain a mystery to psychologists and significant others alike, and it’s the larger implications of human nature that Pegg considers throughout Cedars. As casually apologetic strings sway in the background of "The Mind Is Evil," he excoriates the psyche, blaming it for the wrongdoings of humankind: "Sometimes I think if I killed off my mind / then my heart and I could be free / Somehow it knows what I think about / and it’s always that one step ahead of me."
What’s more terrifying: A masked man jumping out from behind a door yelling "Aaaaaargh!" or Hannibal Lecter coolly leveling his gaze, beckoning "Hello, Clarice"? Clearlake is more concerned with psychological scarring than triggering the fight or flight mechanism. The marching piano of "I’d Like to Hurt You" plods along with a nonchalance that is far more frightening than a more sinister tune would be.
But the highlight of the album is "Wonder If the Snow Will Settle," a brilliant tune that holds the one sincere lament of the album. After cursory ruminations on the darker moments of winter, the line "I wonder whether losing you was such a good idea" is cunningly slipped into the chorus. Like the best works of fiction, it’s a song about everything except what it’s really about.
This harmonic masterpiece is guided by a veteran of the ’80s Britpop scene, ex-Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde, whose production splits Clearlake’s moments into wall-of-sound bravado and delicate introspection, and allows them both to shine. The joy on Cedars is just as poignant as the melancholy — as it should be. Cedars is a triumph of the puzzling aspects of life, and it’s full of some damn catchy songs too.