By Chris Molnar | 8 September 2010
It happened: someone from the band became the guy Thom Yorke sang about in “No Surprises.” “Just turn out the lights,” Phil Selway repeats on “A Simple Life,” which could easily pass as a response from this Mr. No Alarms, this suburban dad extraordinaire. Make no mistake: when Selway says “familial,” he means it, with all the stifling coziness that implies. And like the main character from “No Surprises,” it’s Selway’s melancholic “my life was uneventful but I’m thankful” simplicity of Familial that resonates most strongly.
Yorke could’ve gone for a low blow on “No Surprises,” and one could take the same tack against Selway’s debut: oh, those suburban dads, so blithe and full of latent angst! But just because Selway is without the fuzzy Kinkade framework of The Suburbs (2010) or the crisp, post-apocalyptic sterility of OK Computer (1997) to cushion his melodramatic musings doesn’t mean they’re any less plangent. Selway’s steady, slow-burning songs—worthy of the Nick Drake comparisons, even if they’re completely misleading—want nothing and so seem content, even whole, though they consist mostly of vague, confident, unrealized dreams. “Those I love will carry me home” are the words on which the album concludes; it’s honest more than artless.
If this is the latest salvo in the recent indie-dad-rock renaissance—and I believe it is—Familial relates to the National’s or the Walkmen’s post-grunge canons (Wilco somewhere halo’d high above, the Dad of Dads) by trying nothing in particular, succeeding hugely, with no heavy ambition, in exactly what it sets out to do: share ten subtly memorable songs and share them earnestly (along with a solid stack of memorable twists). The background vocalists who chant, “Put it back, put it back, put it where you found it” at the end of “By Some Miracle” (a common dad-warning rendered metaphysical), the clipped Eraser (2006)-type intro to “Beyond Reason,” the gorgeously slight metaphor of “Patron Saint,” and the multiple hooks it boasts: Selway’s deceptively strong voice anchors each with a sense of humility, and in that way represents all the best qualities of what we might as well start referring to as dadness. In other words, Selway says exactly what he means to say, wraps it in complementary arrangements, and at the core of each song hides some seriously complex chord progressions. Twenty-plus years rocking complicated backup for a famous obfuscator gives his refusal to dabble in associative imagery an intelligent, fuck-you feel—the backstory matters insofar as it gives us assurance that any confidence he might have is well-earned.
Selway’s insistence on quiet, like a parent shushing rowdy kids, has the kind of authority that one denies at one’s own peril. There have been many dads before this dad, but every dad is someone’s Dad. By which I mean: pretty guitar figures and hushed vocals may have been done many times over, but Phil Selway is, for many of us, Dad. We’ve grown up with him in the background, him keeping time, and now as you’re heading off to summer camp, or college, or something, he’s got advice and anecdotes for us. He sings about “a chance to make amends,” “the ties that bind us,” and how “as [he] gave into temptation, [he] strayed across the line.” These aren’t bits of wisdom to parse over the course of many listens, but ones told with unimpeachable clarity, imperfect answers to the sorts of questions that Thom Yorke has been asking for decades now.
Familial‘s far from brilliant, but you—snotty brat of the Radiohead generation, lapping up the languor of both Wavves’ bong-odored holidays and the admittedly strange sight of Matt Berninger’s kid on his shoulders—would do well to turn the dial of your irony meter from “post-post” to “zero” for a half an hour or so. Like any visit to the parents, no matter how old one is, I wouldn’t want too many albums like this per year. But once in a while it pays to show some appreciation for whatever it is we’re used to taking for granted.