The Charlatans have always endeavored to stay relevant, consistently tweaking their sound at every corner of their prodigious 20-year career. Setting out their stall as Madchester ravers with their debut, Some Friendly, Tim Burgess and company have since surfed the Britpop wave to chart success during the mid-‘90s, only to get moody and introspective around the turn of the millennium, then finally dabbling with reggae and dub influences for 2006’s Simpatico.
Who We Touch is a far more straightforward offering from the indie veterans, and while its hardly cutting edge, there’s certainly no question as to whether the group is still relevant musically. The album opens with a roar of jarring noise on lead single “Love Is Ending,” proving to be somewhat of a red herring as it gives way to a chorus line that, though finished with wailing guitars and lo-fi drums, adheres to standard pop sensibilities with i’s dotted and t’s crossed. “My Foolish Pride” and “Your Pure Soul” are similarly direct pop ditties, the former sporting an infectious piano melody complemented by subtle string work. It seems as though the Charlatans are content to put the lid on their two decades of unrestrained experimentation, stringing together some of their sprightliest songs to date.
Even when Who We Touch settles into a more measured stride, the slower tracks aren’t executed with the glum angst of the kind that might have appeared in their earlier work, though they do stray from the verse-chorus-verse template of the album’s opening salvo. The soaring “Intimacy” stands out for another spellbinding keyboard melody, while “Oh!” is a lawless assault on the chamber-pop ballad, complete with a full string section, rich interplay between guitars and organs, and Burgess’s spooky crooning.
If the album opened with accessible pop songs, though, it ends on a more wistful note: The lengthy numbers, like “Intimacy” and “Oh!,” as well as the dreamy curtain call “You Can Swim,” all surpass mainstream radio’s much-maligned five-minute mark, and between them meander through enough bridges and middle-eights to fill another 20 years’ worth of albums.
Still, these oblique tracks are also the album’s most beguiling, and by some distance. Both “Sincerity” and “When I Wonder” are in place to meet the quota of guitar-driven rock numbers, but only underline that Burgess’s strengths as a songwriter no longer lie in ‘90s baggy anthems. “Smash the System” likewise is a purposeless call to arms that seems outmoded in the course of far more sophisticated songwriting. Who We Touch works best when the band revels in their sense of adventure, but it suffers dramatically when overtly appealing to days gone by.