Two summers ago, I walked two blocks to see Teenage Fanclub for free. The Scottish power-pop group, which was about to turn 25, was playing Pier 84, a spear in the side of midtown Manhattan whose history as a venue is ancient enough that The New York Times described one of its early acts as “the Irish U2.” Pier 84 was part of my life: It was where I walked my dog, went to watch sunsets, and sometimes sat on the grass during daytime, my fear of skin cancer warring with my dread of deficient Vitamin D. On this evening, a midsize crowd covered the grass, facing a stage set up on a rebuilt boardwalk that Hurricane Sandy had crumpled. People who’d planned to be there mingled with gawkers who’d been lured by the bright lights; the former mouthed the words with the band, while the latter wondered aloud which band they were watching. The most voices joined in when the Scots closed with “The Concept,” an early-’90s anthem brought back by Young Adult. I sang along, snapped a terrible Twitpic, and walked two blocks back home, grateful for the occasional cultural amenities that make paying Manhattan rent almost worthwhile.
I’m a Fanclub fan, but if the show hadn’t been visible from my window, I might not have known about it or bothered to go. At some point, all but the most mesmerizing, living-legendary musicians lose their ability to be an event. At best, they become part of the scenery (usually in a less literal way). Periodically, one of their hits pops into your head as you go about your business; if you’re in the mood, you’ll queue up the classics, but you might not even wonder what they’re up to now.
Friday, Teenage Fanclub released a reminder: Here, their 10th album (and only their second since 2005). They aren’t the only singers of a certain age whose studio discography just reached double digits: Another group that got big in the ’90s and early ’00s, Wilco, put out their 10th LP on Friday, too. Here and Schmilco, Wilco’s latest, are softer, cleaner, and more contented spins on the bands’ effective formulas. Neither work will make you a convert if you weren’t one before, but both are good arguments against burning out and in favor of fading away.
In earlier eras, it was possible to pump out a 10th record before you turned 30. (Exile on Main St. was the Rolling Stones’ 10th U.K. release.) Most modern artists cede the spotlight long before they become 10-timers. The 11 men who make up Wilco and Teenage Fanclub — well, the 10 whose ages are easily Googled — are, on average, 49 years old. That’s an awkward age for rockers, even those who rarely really rawked — too old to be ascendant, too young to come back into style or resign themselves to the nostalgia circuit. The between time is the bathroom break on the set list of life, an uncanny valley where stars can stay the course but suddenly look like they’re trying too hard.
Reviews of albums by bands of a certain age always hit the high and low points — either the times they almost made it or, if they did make it, the times they came close to splintering. Teenage Fanclub stories cite the compliments paid by Kurt Cobain and Liam Gallagher; the tours with Nirvana and Radiohead; the famous 1991 Spin snub of Nevermind in favor of Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. In Wilco’s case, we read about the Warner/Reprise rejection of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; the destructive addiction and depression; the desertions and the drama documented in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and the book Wilco: Learning How to Die. It all sounds so exciting compared to the low-profile perseverance of late middle age.
The bigger a band’s body of work, the harder it is to turn its zigs and zags into a coherent trend line. This is the one where they experimented in the studio; that’s the one where they went back to basics; oof, there they tried to do disco. That kind of classification has never been easy for fans of Teenage Fanclub, who make minor tweaks but never stray far from their specialty. TFC doesn’t hide its hooks. Like a hard-throwing pitcher behind in the count, the band lays its best pitch over the plate: Here it is, hum it.
From the first 15 seconds of driving album opener “I’m in Love,” it’s clear that their ear is intact. Guitarist Norman Blake’s lyrics, prominently mixed, float above a bed of chiming, interweaving guitars, with soothing harmonies from guitarist Raymond McGinley and bassist Gerard Love. (As usual, the three founders split the songwriting equally.) Here and there we hear hints of boundary-testing — a synth-built bridge on McGinley’s “I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive,” and a Jabba’s palace vibe on the meandering “Steady State” — but the main draw is still the pure prettiness on songs such as “Thin Air,” “I Have Nothing More to Say,” and “It’s a Sign.” On Here’s closer, “Connected to Life,” Blake sings, “I will not deceive you, I only want to please you.” TFC might have been bigger if they had deceived us sometimes, but Here excels at supplying what their existing audience wants.
Wilco, meanwhile, has pivoted almost too many times to keep track. In tone, instrumentation, and tempo, Schmilco is a comedown from last summer’s more energetic surprise release, Star Wars (which sprang from the same sessions). Ultimately, it’s also more memorable, although it doesn’t surrender its secrets as easily as Here. Jeff Tweedy’s facility as a songwriter is such that it’s easy to imagine a few minutes of focused finger-picking and scatting producing a passable melody, and on Schmilco’s first spin, you might wonder whether some of its songs were indeed dashed off on no notice. This doesn’t sound like a sextet in full swing; it sounds as if Tweedy is still stuck in Sukierae mode, strumming and singing with his plaintive woodwind murmur. Schmilco’s longest song, the 4:16 “Cry All Day,” is shorter than the average cut on YHF, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for fuzzy soundscapes and musical collages.
On subsequent listens, though, the subtleties turn up: a Nels Cline noodle here; a Mikael Jorgensen keyboard contribution there; the uplifting ending of “Quarters.” The 12-track sequence flits from polished earworms (“If I Ever Was a Child”) to songs that sound almost unfinished (“Shrug and Destroy”) to the discordant cacophony of “Common Sense” (the strongest remnant of Weird Wilco), as if it’s Tweedy’s take on the eclectic second side of The White Album. Throughout, Schmilco eschews any pretension: Even the title is intended to give it a tossed-off air. A little more ego might not have hurt; in moderation, pretension can be a powerful force. Here is more likely to leave Teenage Fanclub’s fans fulfilled than Schmilco is to satisfy Wilco’s — not because Schmilco is any less listenable in the long run, but because Wilco’s best work was more sprawling, and Schmilco’s stripped-down concision seems less ambitious.
If there’s any concession to age by either band, it’s their inward-looking lyrics. Teenage Fanclub peeks at the “pain in this world” and nods at the Reaper before retreating to the present, where it’s safe to celebrate “simple pleasures” and “live in the moment.” Tweedy, who allows himself to look back, finds a lot to dislike, although he strikes a self-described “joyously negative” stance: For every “Happiness depends on who you blame,” there’s at least a half-hearted “I gather things can change.” The thread that ties the two middle-aged albums together is a sense of acceptance that some sources of stress aren’t actually worth worrying about.
The first questions we ask about any new addition to a deep catalog are Can I put it in the pantheon? Does it measure up to the old stuff, while still sounding distinct? The answers are almost always “no.” Maybe it lacks some of the spark of the prime period. Maybe it successfully channels the classic sound but, by definition, isn’t as innovative. Maybe it’s every bit the equal of the earlier work but doesn’t seem so because it’s less in step with cultural tastes, or because it arrived too late to serve as the soundtrack to your formative moments. In your personal playlist, you’ll probably never have a 10th record in as heavy rotation as you will the one you heard when you were 13 or 18 or 22.
But then there are the questions that come next: Does it ruin their reputation? Will I think less of them for having heard this? In my mind, there’s little a band can do to retroactively tarnish its previous output. Here and Schmilco aren’t quite good enough to burnish their creators’ strong résumés, nor bad enough to besmirch them — they’re just Being There, to borrow Wilco’s words. It beats breaking up.