Readers, creeping deadlines have caught Freaky Trigger unawares and without its master list, and so a single which I bought two days ago vaults its way into the countdown. But what’s the point of pop without ephemerality and infatuation? And anyway, “Sweeping The Nation” earns its place by right as much as whim.
I’m both a sucker for and a bit repulsed by pop records which are acts of pop criticism themselves – they always feel very insular (or maybe it’s just that my toes are getting trodden on!). Spearmint’s four-minute warning not to lose your dreams doesn’t quite escape the trap, but it’s hard to care too much when confronted with what’s probably the most fun indie record this country’s produced for ages. The most indie record, come to think of it – indie like it used to be, all Wedding Present thrashy toy guitars, all bouncing keyboards, all pledges and leaps of fanzine faith. Though sentimentally – and damn, it’s sentimental – “Sweeping”’s a second cousin of Denim’s breathless Summer Smash, it’s hardly a record with an eye on the charts. The national takeover it proposes isn’t going to be achieved through anything as vulgar as sales, more through a stealthy coup on the hearts of the people who care.
What I like best about this record, though, isn’t the feeling (I’m too cynical) or the tune (though you could hum it) or the lyrics (promising though they are). It’s Shirley Lee’s voice and phrasing, urgent, warm and clear. He’s got everything I look for in a pop singer – he’s dramatic, theatrical even, without ever being pretentious or affected. “Sweeping The Nation” kicks and flounces like ABC or Pulp or Orange Juuice or the World of Twist: a speedy, fiercely alive Northern beat. It sounds like it could have been made in ’82 or ’86 or ’90, but this kind of urgency, wit and desire doesn’t date.
I liked the idea of putting a really new single into the list, but my affection for this particular song was short-lived (though I did buy the LP). I was still interested in hearing records which might touch me in the same way the Smiths had touched me when I was 15 - smart lyrics, a good tune, emotional relevancy. None of them bad things, but at the same time it was becoming increasingly obvious that I could tick those boxes as easily with soul or pop records and get a lot more besides, but I still clung on to the idea that shy white boys with guitars could walk a royal road to my heart. Spearmint were just one band in a procession of diminishing returns, which finally ended after an unfortunate flirtation with Hefner.
It's possible the pendulum swung too far in the other direction - my conflicted feelings over my indie past are a bit lame, if I'm honest with myself. But it still doesn't make me scratch my head any less at some of the things I liked towards the tail-end of the 1990s. The bit in the write-up about Shirley Lee's voice was a real surprise to me - now I can't hear anything special at all in it, though its breathlessness takes some of the sting from the mealy-mouthed words.
I don't think "Sweeping The Nation" is a very good record now. There's something interesting in the tension between evangelism and the "wasting my life" self-knowledge, but both of them come off a little bit precious. The lyrics are annoying - and point up the thing that ended up more than anything putting me off this kind of music and culture, the way it so often defines itself negatively, by what it's not rather than what it is. The tune isn't bad and the band obviously know how the people who like their records like to dance, because it's perfectly constructed for shuffling and the occasional air-punch. But it shouldn't have made the list.