Album Review: Teenage Fanclub - Thirteen (25th anniversary/2018 vinyl reissue)

I think I’ve bought the fourth album from Teenage Fanclub, Thirteen, a total of four times in my life—roughly once every eight years.

The first would have been a little less than a year after its original release in October of 1993; it was the summer of 1994, I was 11 years old, and I had spent my summer watching a lot of music videos on MTV—“Cannonball” by The Breeders and “Bull in The Heather” by Sonic Youth were include among those I saw regularly. Toward the end of the summer, I had planned on buying Last Splash and Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star on cassette.

I can recall watching an interview with the Deal sisters—Kim and Kelly—from The Breeders, on MTV News, and in the interview, one of them expressed a love of Teenage Fanclub. This was in a world long before streaming an album in its entirety on Spotify, or on YouTube; long before previewing bits of each track in the iTunes store. I heard the band name Teenage Fanclub, and thought, ‘Well, I better check this out too, I guess,’ and with my other cassette purchases at the end of the summer, I added the band’s most recent and readily available effort, Thirteen, to my pile, knowing absolutely nothing about the band.

I’m not sure what happened to those tapes—they are all long, long gone now, probably nowhere near a state of decomposition, taking up a small amount of room in some landfill in rural Illinois. I recall, for a fact, that I was definitely not ready for that Sonic Youth album—I mean, even at 35, I sometimes question if I am really ready for certain Sonic Youth albums—Experimental Jet Set among those included.

But I think I got a lot of mileage out of Thirteen.

I have a vague memory of what would have been the second time I purchased a copy of Thirteen; if my memory is, in fact, correct, this would have been a used CD, procured over Thanksgiving break during my sophomore year of college—so late November of 2002. What I can’t recall now, however, is why I would have been so moved to do this at this point in my life, and if this is a real memory—what happened to that CD.

The third time I purchased Thirteen would have been in the summer of 2010; again, a used copy of the CD. However, this time, I managed to snag some kind of limited or special edition of the album that tacked on an additional six tracks at the end. It was during this time that I began working at the radio station in our town, putting together an hour-long show, every weekday afternoon. To build the show, I had to continually think about music—exploring all genres as well as different time periods—and it caused me to do a lot of thinking back to things I listened to when I was younger.

A specific song from Thirteen popped into my head one afternoon—“Radio” (but of course)—and I drove to the used CD store in town to see if they had a copy. I get the impression that, much like R.E.M.’s Monster, Thirteen is one of those early to mid 90s CDs that you will almost always be able to find a used copy of.

The fourth time I purchased Thirteen was just very recently—the vinyl reissue of the album, released as part of a massive campaign from the band and Sony Music, remastering and issuing the band’s ‘Creation Years’ records—including their 1991 breakthrough Bandwagonesque, as well as three record released in the years after ThirteenGrand Prix, Songs From Northern Britain, and Howdy!

In comparison to the glowing reception of 1991’s BandwagonesqueSpin magazine famously named it the best record of the year, beating My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Nevermind by Nirvana, and U2’s Achtung Baby for that title—Thirteen was, apparently, maligned by critics upon its release, and considered a huge disappointment in terms of a follow up.

In the Pitchfork review regarding all five reissues from the campaign, Sam Sodomsky—a staff writer and occasional critic for the site, and for what it’s worth, I usually take issue with a lot of his reviews—said Thirteen has a ‘reputation far worse than its music,’ which is a bit of a backhanded compliment, and then goes on to call the album ‘sloppier’ and ‘gnarlier’ than its predecessor; and that, at the time of its release, it was considered to be ‘brainless’ and ‘derivative.’

Both Bandwagonesque and Thirteen are the last two albums that would find the band operating with a more grunge oriented sound; they traded it in for something that was less angsty, and instead, more shimmering by 1995’s Grand Prix; and they’ve mellowed out quite a bit on their2010s output via Merge Records.

But I would never call Thirteen a ‘gnarlier’ album, or say that it is sloppy. Yes, the band still relies on distortion pedals for a majority of the record, but if anything, Thirteen is a collection of tightly constructed songs (13 of them, but of course) that blur the edges between jangle pop, or ‘alternative,’ and grunge rock—and a bulk of these songs are much more compelling and focused than anything on Bandwagonesque.

Or, maybe I’m unfairly biased because of which album I heard first. While Thirteen had drifted in and out of my life, and ears, many times, it wasn’t until later in 2010 when I thought to even track down a copy of Bandwagonesque; and sure, it’s a fine album—but over the last eight years, I know I’ve listened to Thirteen more.

* * *

Thirteen begins with a snarl—because of course it does. It’s a guitar-driven ‘rock’ album, and it’s a pure product of its era. Though, 25 years later, a surprising thing, upon hearing this record, yet again—this time from 180-gram vinyl, is that time has been awfully kind to it. In some respects, it sounds dated, yes, but it has aged surprisingly well—which, I think, only speaks to its charm and merit.
Opening with the sprawling epic, “Hang On,” yes, the record starts with a snarling, distorted electric guitar, and it only continues to build as the thundering percussion comes in, as well as the low, rumbling bass line. However, it’s all just a rouse; as the tempo gets unnervingly fast, “Hang On” seems like its on the verge of exploding before it even gets off the ground—but it doesn’t. The song crests, and while those distorted guitars are still chugging along underneath, things become exponentially less aggressive or ‘hard’ sounding when the vocals slide in and the song ‘actually’ begins—a rollicking, kaleidoscopic pop song that, across its five minute running time, eventually finds its way into a flute solo, of all things, that makes way for the song’s lengthy instrumental ending, complete with a swirling string accompaniment.

Not every song on Thirteen is this bombastic, however, and the album quickly finds its footing as an affable kind of alternative rock album with two incredibly energetic songs back to back—“The Cabbage” and the blistering power pop of the aforementioned “Radio.”   

As Thirteen progresses, if you listen closely to both the lyrics, and the music, as well as look intently at the song titles, you see that this is a record brimming with an incredibly dry and self-aware sense of humor—something that maybe listeners and critics failed to see the first time around, or maybe simply didn’t appreciate it. Strangely enough, in the little blurb about the record in its iTunes store listing, it’s described as a ‘dark’ record—and I’ve never thought that at all.

Titles like “Song to the Cynic,” “120 Mins,” and “Commercial Alternative” are all knowing winks directed at the listener; even the music of “Commercial Alternative,” with a soaring guitar riff right out of the gate, sounds a bit satirical when you realize the built-in joke within the title.

There’s also the infectious “Escher,” another small bit of humor hidden within the record, with its refrain—“I don’t know if I’m going up or down with you; Don’t know if I’m coming going up or down with you, but I don’t mind.”

Critics described the album as ‘brainless’ when it was released, and while I find that to be a bit much—I can see why some may have felt that way. It apparently had something to do with the lyrics to “Norman 3”—one of the singles released from Thirteen, and one of album’s contributions by Norman Blake; the somewhat unique thing about Teenage Fanclub as a band is that the songs come from three places—Norman Blake, Gerard Love, and Ray McGinley—all of whom share lead vocal duties as well.

Blake’s “Norman 3,” finds the singer repeating the phrase, “I’m in love with you,” like, well over 20 times—serving as the song’s refrain, I guess. I mean, it didn’t really bother me too much as a kid when I listened to this album—it’s, like so many others on here, an infectious song. But if you take a step back, sure, it’s super repetitive, and more than a little cloying.

But not brainless.

It was also called derivative—mostly of Big Star—and mostly because the album was named Thirteen, a direct reference to the Big Star song, “Thirteen,” found on the influential group’s debut album, #1 Record. This was, apparently, a case where wearing your influences on your sleeve was problematic.

There are things that don’t necessarily work, or at least are less successful—despite the repetition and saccharine nature of “Norman 3,” I’d argue that Thirteen has a pretty unfuckwithable four track run from the moment it begins. However, “Song to The Cynic,” and “120 Mins”—neither of which are bad songs, but they are slow songs, or momentum-killing songs, and they bring the pacing of the record down quite a bit, before it’s kicked back up with “Escher.”

The album’s second side is also a little uneven, suffering a similar pacing issue with the trudging “Tears Are Cool” and “Ret Liv Dead.” However, two of the album’s most impressive moments are also found within the second side—“Fear of Flying,” and the lengthy closing track, “Gene Clark.” The former, sure, the song’s coda is a little monotonous (however, not as bad as repeating “I’m in love with you,” over and over again) but there’s something fascinating about how “Fear of Flying” kind of switches gears—it begins rather downcast, with some surprising lyrics: “This is your one way ticket, so don’t fuck it up. Your flight is boarding, and you’re running out of luck.” But it becomes something short of joyous by the time it reaches its rolling conclusion.

The latter, arriving at roughly seven minutes, finds the band exploring Neil Young and Crazy Horse levels of lengthy, noisy instrumental noodling before seguing into the song proper—and as it slowly fades out, makes for a slightly dissonant, sharply contrasting, and memorable conclusion to the record.

The reissue of Thirteen has been remastered from the original tapes at Abbey Road Studios; it doesn’t make a huge difference sound wise when you compare it to the original release, but you can tell that some work has been done. As with most reissues and remasters of albums—especially from this era—things are, overall, a lot louder, and there has been a little more depth added to give the album not such a ‘flat’ sound, as was common with production and mastering in the 1990s.

This reissue also includes a 7” single that features two additional tracks—both of which are pulled from the Thirteen sessions, and were not included in bonus material on my CD copy of the record. “Country Song,” which is exactly what it sounds like, is previously unreleased, and would have more than likely stuck out terribly if it had been shoehorned onto the album’s final track list; the single’s b-side, “Eyes Wide Open” was released on a compilation in 2004, put together to benefit and raise awareness about mental health in Scotland. It’s a short track, less than two minutes, but is more akin to the rest of the material, or aesthetic, the band had on Thirteen.

I’ve spent 24 years, give or take, listening to Thirteen; it’s not a perfect record, and I don’t know if I’d go out on a limb and say it’s one of my all time favorite records. But maybe it is? I didn’t even really bat an eyelash at the idea of ordering this vinyl reissue—in fact, when the reissues were announced, my first thought was ‘Oh, I should probably get a copy of Thirteen.’ It’s an album that I have come, over time, and many tries, to enjoy—and to enjoy it for what it is. It’s a fun listen that straddles the line between humor and taking itself too seriously, and it has a sense of nostalgia built into it that, somehow, I’ve managed to carry with me into adulthood.