I’ve tried to start this piece several times. A stupid amount in fact. At some point I was labouring over an incredibly pretentious opening that talked about “the annals of pop history” and went on to talk about the long list of oddballs, outsiders, and eccentrics that Peter Cat absolutely belongs to, but each time I found myself hitting a wall. So here I am now, listening through the record again for what must be the sixth, seventh, eighth time, and I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the best thing to do is just go ahead and say it: The Saccharine Underground is a brilliant debut record. It’s a majestic record full-stop. I know that doesn’t exactly read like a measured opening statement, but hey, ten minutes ago I was laughing, five minutes ago I was crying, and now I’m feeling my equilibrium slowly return as the final track plays out once more.
The album opens in quite spectacular fashion with a one-two punch of The Big House followed by Hand Through Hair. The former beginning as an oddly disjointed affair that comes on like Talking Heads playing Sparks and soon gives way to a chorus that is at once peculiar and glorious, and more than a little reminiscent of Pulp’s late 90s output. Painting an oddly grim yet hopeful picture, the track rides out on the lines “In the big house I found love / With asbestos in my lungs / Life’s a ladder, here’s the bottom rung“. Coming off the back of it, Hand Through Hair is an explosive, hook-laden blast of glam pop built on abrasive verses and another absolute monster of a chorus. (This is very much the Peter Cat modus operandi). An instrumental break two-thirds of the way through sounds a little like early Roxy Music playing Clint Mansell’s main theme from Moon before the song snaps back into an ostentatious final round of stop/start choruses.
What’s pretty clear from the get-go is songwriter and frontman Graham Neil Gillespie’s considerable talent as a lyricist. Fans of observational writers in the vein of Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker will find a huge amount to love here. Disappointing Lover, with its self-deprecating (to say the least) chorus of “When you hear it out loud, it’s terrible / When it’s written down, unbearable / You’ve been a disappointing lover and you never can forget” feels like a track that could have fitted quite nicely on Hannon’s A Short Album About Love. It’s simply a stunning song, showcasing Gillespie’s knack for marrying astute lyrics with earworm melodies.
I mention Hannon with good reason. If you happen to have read my interview piece last week, you’d no doubt have seen that Gillespie referred to him as ‘a brother from another mother’. There’s certainly a strong resemblance vocally, and in some of the more luxurious melodic passages, but in truth tracks such as (I Want to Break Down) In Your Arms and Love Lurks have an urgency (and quality) sorely lacking in places on the last three Divine Comedy records. Are they a bit too similar to Hannon? In all honesty, I couldn’t say. To me they’re just fantastic songs. If you’d told me they were unreleased DC songs I wouldn’t question it. Make of that what you will, but it’s very much a compliment in my book.
Sandwiched between the above two tracks are previous single ASMR (previously described as “a six-way pile-up between Franz Ferdinand, Neil Hannon, Primal Scream, Sparks, Pulp, and Lodger-era Bowie”) and the tender, almost grown-up lullaby of If You Can’t Live Without Me – a wry 60s-ish ballad built on slowly-moving minor and major seventh arpeggios and sickly sweet backing vocals.
Saving the best until last, the record closes with the trio of The Day After The Funeral, SO STR8, and Planet Perfecto. The final two tracks kind of feel like the dawning realisation that the night is coming to an end, followed by the gradual wind-down after everybody else has gone home. Both are magnificent – touching a little on Pulp, Pet Shop Boys, and LCD Soundsystem – but for my money it’s Funeral that’s the real star of the show. Whereas the joy of the first seven tracks comes in large part from Gillespie’s tongue-in-cheek narration, here it’s replaced by something that seems to be coming from another place altogether. This is reflected in the stately arrangement, which is built around a mournful piano and largely-acoustic instrumentation. In the piece I published last week, Gillespie described it as a song ‘about the impossibility of mourning: about how your world will continue to spin even when another’s has stopped spinning‘. I like the relative (cold) mundanity of the chorus, as he sings “On the day after the funeral, I ate my breakfast as usual / and the cold sun will set, just like it did yesterday“. Littered throughout the track are some fantastic images, which would be pointless for me to write down. Probably best to scroll down and have a listen. It’s quite special.
Overall, The Saccharine Underground is a triumph. The songs are intricate, lyrically diverse, and often loaded with hook upon hook upon hook. Recorded over a period of two years, using a range of analogue equipment at Glasgow’s Green Door Studios, there’s an attention to detail that comes through loud and clear in each track. Sure, it could be said Peter Cat’s sound draws a wee bit from artists like Franz Ferdinand, the Divine Comedy, and some of the more interesting late 90s indie rock acts (not dullards like Oasis), but it’s pulled together with great panache and sounds quite unlike anything else I can put my finger on right now. It takes something special to be able to make you laugh out loud one minute, and then absolutely break you the next. Basically I love everything about it – from the music and lyrics, through to Kate Timney’s cover artwork – and eagerly await whatever comes next.