It’s been almost fifteen years since Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque took critics by storm in 1991, eclipsing both My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, R.E.M.’s Out of Time and the bellwether of all modern era rock albums, Nirvana’s Nevermind, as Spin Magazine’s top album of 1991. It would appear that the period in between then and now has mellowed the Glaswegian quartet somewhat, as the dingy, ramshackle melodicism has been eschewed in favor of a gentler, more experimental spirit. That is, as much as a traditional Big Star-Byrdsian guitar pop band can experiment without just becoming a collective of trance DJs. The group that once called themselves “The Boy Hairdressers,” and that once recorded an album of instrumentals capped off by a cover of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in a futile attempt to fulfill the terms of their first contract has obviously fallen victim to the inevitable wiles of maturity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, at least depending on which vintage of Teenage Fanclub most compels you.
Man-Made is the Fannies’ first record made solely as a collective since 2000’s Howdy! (yes, replete with exclamation point), and their ninth overall, if you count The King, the previously-mentioned instrumental album. After their brief celebrity fling with a fickle American music-buying public, culminating with a performance on Saturday Night Live, they wasted no time in fading to cult status in the wake of the Britpop class of the mid-90’s. Their sound remained much the same, however, though they did show signs of mellowing, starting with 1997’s Songs from Northern Britain. While the group’s foundational sound is still intact, Man-Made finds them much less reluctant to twiddle some knobs, noodle around with some unobtrusive atmospheric touches and abate some of the tempos. This evolution comes around thanks in large part to producer John McEntire, who fronts Chicago indie-rockers Tortoise when he’s not behind the board.
There is no “Everything Flows” or “What You Do To Me” or “Neil Jung” (my personal TFC favorite) on Man-Made, even though tunes like Norman Blake’s “Slow Fade” and Gerard Love’s “Fallen Leaves” do come the closest to hearkening back to their classic period. There’s a sweet, understated grace to many of the songs, and their trademark harmonies are still to be had all over the place. Blake has been seen by many as the de-facto president of the democratic trio by virtue of his past efforts, but with less emphasis on big, shiny hooks and more on texture this time around, all three songwriters have a handful of notable moments. It’s less a record marked by standout singles than one of steady, consistent musicianship, and your enjoyment of the album is most likely going to correlate directly with your own impression of those prospects.
The differences between early vintage Teenage Fanclub and later vintage Teenage Fanclub are noticeable enough on Man-Made, but if you’ve stuck with the band this long, chances are that the changes won’t be nearly enough to scare you away. They haven’t buried their pop element as much as they’ve just fiddled around with it a little bit, as if they were embracing their liberated indie status. It may not rock quite as much as the Fannies’ faithful is used to, but there’s plenty to like here.