With their debut album, the British garage rock band articulated the restless whirring of modern brains in funny, profoundly poetic songs
Oven chips, a Twix, a hot dog, sausages, mayonnaise, nuts, seeds, berries, sushi, pastries, chocolate mousse, pizza, chocolate chip cookies, a cream bun, a Müller Corner yoghurt. The lyrics on Dry Cleaning’s debut album are full of food but – some expensive mushrooms, a mixed salad and a “banging pasta bake” aside – it’s mostly the kind you pick at distractedly between meals, that doesn’t really satisfy you.
That horrible false satisfaction – of eating for something to do; of being full and yet not – is what this album gets at in such a simple, original way. The idle consumption seems to symbolise a wider malaise, a culture given to listlessness and living hand-to-mouth. Dry Cleaning are voicing the banality of contemporary life, and the feeling of impotence it can induce, in a more cleanly articulated voice than any band I can think of.
There are certainly plenty of other British artists talking tunefully about the everyday. Sleaford Mods have Dry Cleaning’s tendency to focus on bland details that take on gigantic and horrible meaning, but their contempt for it all is much more evident; Black Country, New Road have the four-piece’s tendency to non sequiturs and weird stories, but they’re much more romantic. Instead, the stream of consciousness from Dry Cleaning frontperson Florence Shaw is endlessly dammed and diverted until it’s lost any sense of where it was headed. There’s a nihilism to this album, a sense that even brief moments of meaning amount to very little.
Shaw doomscrolls through her own life, never able to alight on anything for more than a moment: “Your haircut’s changed for charity / Can you imagine the rent?” On first listen she sounds bored and monotone, but is actually always at least idly interested in what she’s commenting on, and her voice has a meandering musicality that complicates any reading of her feelings. You can build out an entire narrative from the relieved-aggrieved way she says: “It was chucking it down when I stepped out / It’s not now.”
Leafy, a ballad of sorts, has the most obvious emotional tenor – a beautiful, desperately awful portrait of depression. But the album is often breezy and funny, full of little situation comedies. The setting of the imaginatively catchy single Scratchcard Lanyard suddenly pivots to a church hall or community centre: “I’ve come here to make a ceramic shoe / And I’ve come to smash what you made / I’ve come to learn how to mingle / I’ve come to learn how to dance,” Shaw says, using truculence, violence and am-I-bothered airiness to mask a need for human connection that she is clearly embarrassed by, but not enough to ignore – all in four short lines.
Her delivery is so particular that she requires unpretentious music. With fussier or less rhythmic backings, Shaw could perhaps sound self-important, her humour might get overlooked. The guitar-bass-drums trio sturdily ground her, cleaving to a kind of stoner-garage rock, though their backings are actually quite varied: Unsmart Lady’s riffs are burly and rocking, but More Big Birds has the melodic bass and liberal-arts funk of Spoon or the Sea and Cake, and guitarist Tom Dowse recalls Johnny Marr on the title track.
With her staring, wondering face flanked by walls of hair, almost insulating her from her band, Shaw is startling to watch on stage, too, as she captures a generation’s internal monologue like never before: those bitchy, distracted, utterly unmindful thoughts that a consciousness poisoned by city life and digital media is powerless to stop.
Yet there’s a profound poetry in how her observations hang together, a reminder that something can be built from the dumb flotsam of ordinary life. Perhaps it’s like the Holbein painting she references on Strong Feelings, which you have to regard at an angle to see a hidden human skull. Sometimes you have to look sidelong at life to try and make sense of it.