On Sex With an X, Scottish indie-pop duo The Vaselines – Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee – prove that while a person can go home again, so to speak, it’s rarely the same: the scenery may seem impassive, but the emotions have shifted and lingering wounds can reopen.
For most, The Vaselines were probably a trivial postscript in Nirvana’s history. Kurt Cobain was a huge fan: Nirvana covered “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun” on Incesticide (Geffen, 1992) and “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” showed up as “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam” on the 1994 live document Unplugged in New York (DGC, 1994).
Listeners most likely discovered The Vaselines’ tumbledown twee-noise when Sub Pop released The Way of the Vaselines: A Complete History in 1992 [reissued in 2009 as a deluxe edition, Enter the Vaselines, which added re-masters of early EPs as well as demos and live recordings], by which time the group had already folded. Kelly subsequently resurfaced as leader of boisterous, self-effacing Eugenius, a melding of Teenage Fanclub-esque rock with his precise pop instincts, while McKee busied herself as a member of both Suckle and Painkillers.
After two decades off, though, The Vaselines have returned, and while some things have changed others have stayed the same. The twosome’s last official outing was Dum Dum (Rough Trade, 1989), but anyone expecting nostalgia or a reunion impression won’t find it on Sex With an X.
Musically, the material merges The Vaselines DIY aesthetic with a refined production approach and a small serving of the thick guitar mash that frequented Eugenius’s two undertakings, Oomalama and Tireless Wireless (Atlantic, 1992) and Mary Queen of Scots (Atlantic, 1994). The years have moved on, though, and in this present day when Kelly’s hair has thinned and wrinkles are obvious, the tunes he and McKee fashioned are noticeably tightened with middle aged cynicism and time-weathered candor.
Sex With an X contrasts conspicuously to Man Alive, Kelly’s 2005 solo effort on Sympathy for the Record Industry, which was adorned with acoustic, nearly folksy trappings and optimistic desire. It is also the polar opposite of McKee’s languorous leanings on her previous projects.
A dozen fresh Vaselines pieces here seem gripped by persistent pessimism and aspirations to settle old scores. The 42-minute excursion incongruously kicks off with “Ruined,” beginning with a child’s tuneless croon and then quickly barrages the ears with an assaultive grunge guitar salvo akin to early Nirvana while Kelly gripes about has-been hipsters prolonging their own finished fame. While there is a sense of irony in the lines “I think you got it wrong / Can’t write a decent song” and “We could get famous too / From drink and sniffing glue,” there is also anger at yet another overhyped generation of swinging swindlers selling out to the pop music machine.
The best pieces are jangly cuts like the title track, about having a go with an ex-partner despite painful memories. If there is a general theme, it’s that imprint of labored torment that colors countless former soured relationships. One example is Nick Cave-like “The Devil’s Inside of Me,” where the antagonist blames his cruelty, malfeasance, and masochism on interior demons. The tune’s corrosive quality is accented by echo-laden guitar from Belle & Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, providing a suitable backdrop to Kelly’s repeated mantra, “I’ve got the devil, the devil’s inside me.”
Even better is the incriminating riposte “Overweight but Over You,” a lightly distorted guitar-pop gem that’s another slice of acerbic romance during which Kelly sets up the guidelines to finality: “It’s a recipe we have to follow / Take heartache and a pinch of sorrow / Let it simmer for a year or two / Serve it up and then we’re through.” The finest give-and-take track is slowly seething, Velvet Underground-ish “Poison Pen,” wherein Kelly and McKee trade lines like a couple tired of each other but too tired to divorce. “I can rely on you to always let me down,” Kelly sings with McKee replying, “And I’ll trust you to never be around.”
More tart honesty is unwrapped on mockingly upbeat “I Hate the 80’s,” one more rejoinder hostile to the past. While the band grooves along blissfully, McKee and Kelly pour on the vitriol against the Me Decade with prickly poetry like, “You put a bullet in a Beatle / Started beating on the people.” The refrain, sung by two veterans who lived through it all, sums up a long-gone age: “What do you know? You weren’t there / It wasn’t all Duran Duran / You want the truth? Well, this is it / I hate the 80’s ‘cause the 80’s were shit.” The record concludes with the appropriate “Exit the Vaselines,” which buries hope beneath fatigued fatalism through the cheerless chorus, “Don’t even try, it’s only goodbye.”