My Dark Places
ou could easily map the history of the Television Personalities through Dan Treacy’s failures or lost years: the gifted pop artist repeatedly throwing it all away and settling for less. Half the struggle of being a dedicated Television Personalities fan is reluctantly conceding Treacy’s fallibility. However, when at his best, Treacy is the consummate eulogist of England’s dark places, naturally stylish and canny, steeped in the lore of the 1960s underground but sussed enough to write the most affecting pop songs birthed from punk’s extended fall-out zone.
I rarely feel afraid before listening to a record by an old hero, but part of the draw of My Dark Places is my trepidation at the regenerated Television Personalities. They haven’t made a consistently brilliant record since 1985’s The Painted Word, though every record since has been dotted with gorgeous, moving songs. If anything, Treacy’s work has gotten more intense as the years have moved on: his mid 1990s work is often brutally honest and unsettling. The psychological landscapes of later-period Television Personalities approach the treacherous climes of Big Star’s Third or Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert, where anguish and cynicism live in equal measures, lazy performances flipping a contemptuous finger at a meagre audience taking pleasure in vicariously experiencing the singer’s discomfort. To be completely honest, they probably deserve all the derision the artist can muster.
The good news about My Dark Places is that Treacy is generally on form: in fact, his songs are stronger than expected. The bad news is that it’s still a mixed bag, alternating between brilliance and blunders. “All the Young Children on Crack” is one of the most abject songs this year, a toy-town tune stapled to a broken spine of plodding drums and emaciated guitars. (It’s the lead single.) “Ex-Girlfriend Club” quotes Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking” and spends four long minutes going nowhere, Treacy reeling off an uninspired, meandering rant as the group clatters along, desperately trying to sound simpatico. It makes your heart sink and confirms your worst fears: Treacy is still contemptuous of pop music, and by extension, of you.
Treacy is still able to write a joyous love song though and “She Can Stop Traffic” and “Dream the Sweetest Dreams” are both completely victorious, Treacy’s serrated guitars scrawling livid while the band play on triumphantly. On “Velvet Underground” and “They’ll Have to Catch Us First” Treacy even sounds as though he’s enjoying himself, the first instance for quite some time. However, Treacy’s true forte is the heartbroken documentation of love lost, the many failures of romance and relationships. On “I Hope You’re Happy Now” and “Then a Big Boy Came and Knocked it All Down” he offers his strongest music since The Painted Word, sending out pledges to lovers who’ve left for good while the protagonist watches other’s lives from the outside. Treacy understands those unguarded moments of heartache, and his lyrics catch the second-long spears through the chest of lost love and stretch them for a seeming eternity. One suspects this is what long-term Treacy fans really look for: songs that sparingly document quiet, unending interpersonal devastation.
If that’s the case, then we’re all complicit with Treacy’s foibles. There is a fine line between diarising melancholy and wallowing in misery, and Treacy’s poignant songs often teeter on the precipice. When My Dark Places stumbles, it is wretched, but when it’s successful, it is far worse, because one rarely feels the kind of disturbing emotional evacuation that comes with Treacy’s threnodies for old romance. The combination of Treacy’s back-story and the complexity of My Dark Places makes it hard to live with at times; it is a supremely disquieting record. I suspect Treacy would have nothing less.
Reviewed by: Jon Dale
Reviewed on: 2006-05-02
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