Britpop fascinated me while I lived through it, because I never quite belonged to it, yet somehow it filled the charts and radio playlists with guitar bands. Even as a teenager, I felt something about Britpop was a little too masculine, overly laddish, which wasn’t me at all. The entire scene, I’d later discover, was fueled by a coke-y confidence. Everyone from the bands playing the music to the journalists writing the reviews were snorting lines. It was snowing in the summer and the winter. What I also later realised was that Britpop wasn’t really British, it was English. The explosion of new bands unleashed in the wave of the initial impact didn’t really have much of a Scottish connection at all. Whenever Scotland is mentioned in the Britpop story, it’s always because of Oasis and where they were first discovered. But that didn’t alienate me at all. What I loved about Britpop, apart from how it led to a new era of guitar pop, was how it spanned every class from working to upper, all those people trying to outdo each other. It pulled bands that might not have been signed into prominence, giving me the likes of Placebo and Skunk Anansie. Britpop also felt omnipresent, for better or worse. It brought a new energy to all forms of media, including the publishing industry with all those bloke-y magazines. For goodness sake, (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory adverts appeared in football weeklies and dance monthlies. Then there were all the music shows that popped up on television. Who could forget The Priory or The Ozone? Quite a few of us, I suppose. YouTube, however, keeps it all alive. ’90s television has dated badly. Not content or the fashion, in particular, but the look of it. Cameras pre-HD look fuzzy and unfocused.
In amongst the crash and rumble of newness created by Britpop came Sleeper, who were possibly the most English band of the scene. Louise Wener, one of the coolest singer/songwriters to front a band ever, used her own accent and peppered her lyrics with references that anyone outside of (or unfamiliar with) the island would struggle to understand. Elastica, who were often pitted against Sleeper in reviews because both had a cool as fuck woman at the microphone, weren’t quite as ENGLISH, being far more English with a capital E. Some of my favourite bands of that era are fronted by women. Echobelly, Lush, Salad, and many others. But why Sleeper? What made them more vital n my life, ears, and heart? They made the smart pop music, of course. That’s always a way to appeal to me. Each song is a biting commentary on relationships and the suffocating world of domesticity. Their second album, The It Girl, is where the formula is perfected. I love Smart, their wonderful debut album, but it’s really a collection of songs from EPs. The It Girl is the moment everything fits together perfectly, mainly because Louise Wener had a particular gift of saying a lot without saying much. That’s a key to some of my favourite songwriters: they can evoke moments seemingly without effort, which is the mark of a brilliant writer, because it does take effort, it is hard work. The opening track (unless you bought the American edition), Lie Detector, immediately hits hard, putting out some of Louise’s strongest writing. She’s got green eyes and she’s lovely/Reminds me of the ‘it’ girl with her lips/Got an automatic license/Reads all Dostoyevsky’s household tips. An entire world in words. I loved it, I still do.
Sale of the Century, a song so good it became something you heard being hummed on the bus. The lyrics are bleak but witty, retelling the story of a relationship on the slide, culminating in a cut-glass vicious one-liner. You said I was cheap/You were the sale of the century. With the explosive music press always ready to turn, something the band must have been aware of, I sometimes recast this song as a statement on how good things can never last, so enjoy the good time while you can. A relationship with a person or the record industry, who knows? Like all Sleeper songs, there’s more to find if you look deeper. Glue Ears has the spirit of Blondie in it, which makes sense because Sleeper covered Atomic for the Trainspotting soundtrack. Then there’s Factor 41, which give in excruciating detail Louise’s bad encounters with worse men. I’m tired of being sycophantic/so get your knickers down. Even the headphones blush at that one. I could quote more, but really, the lyrics sheets for the entire album deserve to be framed and mounted on your best wall for people to read as they walk past. Musically, the entire band (Sleeper blokes, a reviewer jibe that stopped being funny long before the band wore the t-shirts to reclaim the insult), sound great, and would sound just as great without Louise. With her, they’re Sleeper, which is something to be proud of. No, The It Girl won’t be lauded like The Great Escape, A Different Class, or Morning Glory – but for me, it’s the equal of any of those albums. Probably better, actually.