According to an old sports cliché, when a team’s star player goes down, it falls on their teammates to step up their game and help make up for lost production. “Next man up!” the coaches often say.
That’s more or less the situation Scottish pop-rock legends Teenage Fanclub find themselves in on their new album Endless Arcade.
A bit of background: From 1997 to 2016, TFC (as we’ll call them) recorded and released five full-length studio albums, each with 12 tracks split evenly between founding songwriters Norman Blake, Gerard Love and Raymond McGinley. The last time any of those three wrote more than four songs on a Teenage Fanclub record was 1995’s Grand Prix, when Blake wrote … five—and that included a cheeky instrumental that clocked in under two minutes long.
That commitment to form and approach is interesting and unusual, but it’s the trio’s consistency of songwriting quality that makes them one of the best rock bands ever. Album after album, Blake, Love and McGinley delivered a dozen perfect-or-pretty-close-to-it pop songs that rang out loud and clear like Big Star and jangled sweetly like The Byrds, often bouncing around in the dulcet zone between the two.
Then, in 2018, the band announced Love’s amicable departure after a disagreement about touring plans. The remaining Fannies replaced him by moving longtime multi-instrumentalist and touring member Dave McGowan into the permanent bass role and adding Welsh musician Euros Childs—best known as the frontman for indie band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and also a bandmate of Blake’s in Jonny—on keyboards. (Drummer Francis Macdonald rounds out the lineup.)
To be clear (and to go back to the sports cliché), losing Love is not like losing a benchwarmer, a scrappy role player or even a solid starter. Along with Blake, Love wrote many of TFC’s very best songs, marked by his gift for connecting weary wisdom with winsome melodies. He is a giant of his craft. Losing him is like the 2012-13 Miami Heat bidding adieu to LeBron James. (Apologies for not having a footy reference ready, mates.)
Of course, that Heat team had other all-time greats—Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen—on its roster, just as Teenage Fanclub has Blake and McGinley, who each contribute six songs to Endless Arcade. The result is an album that fits naturally into the band’s trajectory, which has seen them mellowing gradually and gracefully over the past several years.
The album kicks off with what appears to be a curveball—a track longer than seven minutes long—but turns out to be an extended jam baked into classic Blake, spirited in pace, plainly catchy, lyrically lamenting a lost love and searching for a path forward:
Every morning, I open my eyes
I’m waking up to reality
I’ve been mystified
I’ve been losing sight of what it means to be
And all this time I’ve been holding on
To our memory
I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be home again
These are recurring themes in Blake’s Endless Arcade songs: “I am drifting like ice on the sea,” he sings in “The Sun Won’t Shine on Me,” a beautiful, hymn-like ballad. In “Warm Embrace,” he’s lonely, forlorn and sinking, even as the short song charges through a gauntlet of rhythmic zigzags and keyboard buzz. (This is where Childs’ influence comes through most clearly on the album.) Later, “I’m More Inclined” is almost resistantly upbeat, echoing the fighting spirit of the lyrics: “I could live in isolation / falling deeper into blue / or I could take the path that leads me back to you.”
It’s clear Blake has had his heart badly broken, and that’s hard to hear. On the other hand, the guy does melancholy pop better than just about anyone.
For his part, McGinley writes songs that are less direct, lyrically, and less overtly personal. Instead, he is focused on the bigger picture, watching the world crumble around him in the sneering rocker “Everything Is Falling Apart” but urging “don’t be afraid of this life” in the chorus of the album’s title track. As is often the case, his tunes don’t fly quite as effortlessly as Blake’s; he gravitates toward low-key melodies (“The Future”) and a steady pulse (“Come With Me”). But he’s also capable of his share of highlights, such as “In Our Dreams,” a sparkling, slightly psychedelic number that pops off Endless Arcade’s back half.
There are a couple of songs here that never really blossom, and it’s easy to imagine them being left off previous albums to make room for Love’s four tracks. Alas, that was not an option here. So while Endless Arcade may not quite match the standard of consistency Teenage Fanclub is known for, it’s an excellent reminder of just how much songwriting talent has called this band home for the past three decades. Next man up, indeed.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.