There’s always been a certain measure of novelty to Clinic: the scrubs, the vintage keyboards, the muddy vocals that sound like a sampled sliver of Thom Yorke’s trademark yawl. Their releases following 2000’s Internal Wrangler have been intermittently successful at shaping this bag of tricks into a cohesive sound. Walking with Thee was a more polished take on the style established on that first LP, while Winchester Cathedral pushed back into a fuzzier realm but sounded too garbled, too muddily obscure to amount to a solid effort. Their next two records were solid but not especially exciting, honing the same stylistic formula without a tremendous amount of variation.
It’s this recent reticence that makes Bubblegum refreshing, even if it is halfway disappointing. The album doesn’t entirely rewrite their playbook (the base affectations that have defined and hemmed them in are still here), but it’s the work of a band recontextualizing their core elements. This can be enervating. Scrubbing away the hazy façade, which historically has clung to their songs like a thick fog, is one thing. Yet the scattershot sampling of a world’s full of jangly sounds, which made them vibrant and consistently interesting, has been reduced, resulting in slimmer, more focused songs, which generally pick a theme and stick to it.
“Lion Tamer,” with its fuzzy vocals and brief forays into diverse instrumentation, sounds like Think Tank-era Blur, enamored with the allure of foreign sounds, but not dedicated to them. “Milk and Honey” is similarly skittish, its keyboards reduced to low-key backing elements, pedestrian bongos and strings contributing to a strangely relaxed groove.
Bubblegum may be the sound of growth, but its progress is directed in a strangely traditional direction for a band formerly disinterested in such ordinariness. The Clinic presented here sounds like an entirely different band, perhaps a positive for a group whose freshness had been fading, but the album feels like a transition to a less interesting place, a bland stylistic middle ground populated by hordes of competent songwriters with mediocre materials. Clinic’s underlying trademarks may remain, but Bubblegum doesn’t do anything spectacular with them, and doesn’t come close to answering what they’ll use them for in the future.