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Six by Seven were but one of many British bands to carry the “next Radiohead” albatross in the late ’90s. Despite endorsements from tastemakers like Jools Holland and John Peel, their 1998 debut album, The Things We Make, didn’t yield a “Creep”-sized crossover. It did boast a pretty great “Stop Whispering” in the yearning “For You,” but the rest of the record wasn’t so eager to please, as it wrapped singer-guitarist Chris Olley’s plaintive melodicism in slow-roiling surges that owed more to the stalking gaits of post-rock than Britpop. That tension between their congenial and contrarian instincts likely scuttled Six by Seven’s chart potential, but on their follow-up album, the Nottingham band turned their frustrations and square-peg/round-hole relationship with popular culture into a badge of honor.
On the surface, the reappearance of The Closer You Get is an oddly timed archival project—rather than wait until next year to mark the 20th-anniversary of their debut album, Six by Seven are jumping the queue to do a 17th-anniversary deluxe vinyl repackaging of their second (complete with a bonus collection of Peel sessions). Though Olley rebooted the Six by Seven name in 2013 after a half decade hiatus, next month, he’ll be reforming with the band’s original line-up to perform The Closer You Get in its entirety at a couple of shows in the UK—a reunion spurred by group of fans who lobbied to make the album’s lead-off track “Eat Junk Become Junk” a party-crashing contender in the UK’s annual Christmas No. 1 sweepstakes back in 2015. But that stunt campaign speaks to a genuine need—The Closer You Get has resurfaced not out of knee-jerk nostalgia, but because it feels so vitally, viscerally now.
It’s common to say underappreciated bands were ahead of their time, but Six by Seven were totally of their time. It’s just that, in that brief post-Blair, pre-9/11 golden age, most people didn’t want to hear songs about unfettered consumerism, class conflict, media addiction, and social isolation. The Closer You Get resembles the kind of record Radiohead may have put out in 2000 had Thom Yorke chosen Mark E. Smith instead of Richard D. James as his spirit animal—an album for people who like the idea of Muse, but can’t stomach the pretension of the real one. Rather than attempt to make electronic music, Six by Seven filtered its influence through standard guitar-band instrumentation: the patient builds and trembling leads of their debut gave way to frenetic, skittering rhythms and tweaked-out distortion-pedal squalls, transforming the band from art-rock aesthetes to noise-punk preachers.
And in 17 years, Olley’s targets have only become more firmly entrenched. The lacerating invectives of “Eat Junk Become Junk” leave fresh wounds at a time when a trash-TV huckster has moved into the White House, and while “Sawn Off Metallica T-Shirt” may deal in white-trash caricature, its dirtbag protagonist’s delusions of grandeur (“Lenny Bruce Lee Marvin Gaye—I’ve got style, and I’m misunderstood!”) ring all too familiar in an era of toxic, #GHBTP-grade masculinity and #alternativefacts. (Though the two groups are aesthetic opposites, I wouldn’t be surprised if fellow Nottinghammers Sleaford Mods learned a few lessons in bile-spewing from this record.)
But as much as The Closer You Get unleashes Six by Seven’s latent aggression, there’s a part of Olley that’s holding out hope to commune with the masses—and for all its buckshot cultural critique, the album doesn’t sacrifice Olley’s flair for melancholy and impassioned appeals to the heart. The desperate sentiments of “New Year”—“give me something I can live for/Give me something to believe in”—come couched in a psych-pop sway before a string-swept chorus shoots the song skyward, while the fuzzed-out mid-album double shot of “Don’t Wanna Stop” and “Slab Square” burns like the sound of a band raging against the dying of the light.
By contrast, The Closer You Get’s tent-pole ballads—“England and a Broken Radio” and “100 and Something Foxhall Road”—are more like flickering, short-wicked candles that nonetheless illuminate a path out of the darkness. The former communicates its music-as-salvation message through mellow, Mogwai-esque atmospherics; the latter is both a love letter and farewell note—to an old flame, to Nottingham, to the possibility of happiness itself. As Olley’s more famous peers once wrote, “Don’t get sentimental/It always ends up drivel.” But what makes The Closer You Get more than just a delirious dive through modern life’s rubbish is Olley’s desire to forge an emotional connection with those who feel weighed down by it. And if that means occasionally getting sentimental, then, for Olley, it’s a risk worth taking.Share