There’s something very elemental about Tindersticks’ new album/video project, like a frayed nerve spewing forth pure, unadulterated feeling. Yet the album accomplishes this with impressively few components. It’s a quiet and tense work, with arrangements stripped to their bare essentials, emphasising the negative space in much the same way as the donkey-headed figure sits in front of blackness on the album’s cover, made all the more striking for the simplicity of the background. Whilst Tindersticks have been making music since 1991, they have never sounded more present and more urgent than they do on The Waiting Room.
The Waiting Room follows up 2012’s The Something Rain, and 2013’s compilation Across Six Leap Years, and it feels far more complete than either of those prior (but still good) albums. The former has a sense of urgency drawn from attempting to maintain positivity in the face of the deaths of friends and family members, but the tension underpinning The Waiting Room seems to come from a more complex place. Although death is still an important and poignant theme, emphasised by the soulful vocal performance by the late Lhasa de Sela on Hey Lucinda, the majority of the album is driven my an ambiguous existential dread that occasionally snaps into sharp and heartbreaking focus, such as when Stuart Staples sings “how can I care when it’s the caring that’s killing me” on Were We Once Lovers?. Hey Lucinda sees de Sela and Staples sing about the melancholy of ageing in words that wouldn’t sound out of place in a song by The National – “I only dance to remember how dancing used to feel” – over an uncharacteristically lavish arrangement that spans from flute to steel drums.
Staples’ voice is really the main weapon of the album. He has aged into a tender and vulnerable baritone that recalls Antony Hegarty. It can feel like it’s about to break into a scream at any moment, although he never does. The deep richness of his voice really helps sell sections like the chorus of Were We Once Lovers?, and the stark title track, which would be a capella were it not for the faint organ chords playing gently in the back of the mix. The latter track is truly haunting, and it’s almost necessary that it’s chased by Planting Holes, a pleasantly reflective instrumental that prepares the listener for the dark power of what follows. We Are Dreamers is propelled by a booming bass part played by a brass instrument, and restrained drumming that builds in intensity throughout. It’s reminiscent of the latest Swans compositions in terms of menacing grandeur, with guest vocalist Jenny Beth (of Savages) lending her authoritative tones to the song, amplifying its weight and power.
The pacing of the album is generally impeccable, as every overtly dreary moment is followed by a more relaxed or open one, such as closer Like Only Lovers Can following We Are Dreamers. There isn’t a song here that could possibly be described as happy or upbeat, but tracks like the closer feature a comforting resignation, as opposed to the anxiety of most of the album. Whether it’s being sweetly sad, or tense and ominous, The Waiting Room aches with feeling conveyed perfectly, be that through the evocative but simple lyrics, or the perfectly chosen arrangements that leave enough space for the notes to ring out. It’s an album that feels raw and viscerally sad, and is a stunning achievement for a band that’s been around as long as Tindersticks.