There are a lot of potential outcomes to releasing an influential album. Television Personalities, in the near 30 years since their minor-masterpiece debut, And Don’t the Kids Just Love It, has garnered more attention for that album’s precision than the string of mid-range successes that have followed. The band, a shifting cast of musicians behind singer Dan Treacy, has survived largely on their debut’s legacy, predisposing an entire generation of British kids toward fey, self-deprecating pop while producing a slew of largely unnoticed follow-ups.
While most of that output has been somewhat redundant (save for 1985’s surprising, far-edgier The Painted Word), the band has generally been too strong to totally write off. And A Memory Is Better Than Nothing, the band’s 12th album, continues in this mold, starting off with a strong crop of snappy songs before slowly petering out.
It’s indicative of how simply perfect the band’s formula was, and how quickly they nailed it on a first try, that their debut has so fully eclipsed the rest of their oeuvre. This legacy, along with a stubborn adherence to that formula, has made them a veritable copy of themselves, meaning that an album like this one, while frequently efficient and not as frequently very good, is doomed by comparison. Even the highs of songs like the springy, slurring “Walk Toward the Light” feel like mockups of previously explored territory.
The repetitive mining of this style has assured a kind of retired status, with attention of late coming mostly in the way of appreciation (e.g. a tribute song on MGMT’s latest album) or bizarre controversy, like a kerfuffle in 2006 over whether Treacy was the secret lyrical force behind Arctic Monkeys. Comparisons to the Monkeys, another band whose tightly spotless debut has made them obsolete, may be further evidence of the thinness of this sound, but the influential range it’s had has been amazing, from the C86 generation to the stables of Creation and Sarah records, all the way down to Belle and Sebastian. It’s a testament to the band that they have maintained their own sound while being so relentlessly copied.
A lot of this is due to Treacy’s distinct vocal presence, a throaty lisp that rises to soaring excitement on some occasions, dropping into a mumbly burble on others. That voice sounds slightly more ragged here, but rises to the occasion on songs like the title track and “She’s My Yoko,” overcoming the built-in twee sensibility with open-hearted, if sometimes incomprehensible, lyrics.
The mushy populism of “The Girl in Hand Me Down Clothes” indicates trouble ahead, which arrives fully via the xylophone-driven “The Good Anarchist,” the off-key storybook quality of which is the centerpiece of a weak back-end that slows down the tempo and drives up the schmaltz. As a whole, A Memory Is Better Than Nothing is at times effective while feeling persistently inconsequential, furthering the band’s legacy while doing almost nothing to improve on it.