The idea of the ‘difficult second album' has become something of a cliché nowadays, a stock phrase used by artists and critics alike to explain away disappointment in the face of increasing hype. It's an easy get out of jail free card, an inherent excuse to not try your hardest, a defense against the weight of hype and expectation. It's also bullshit. Sure, some second albums are difficult. Of course they are. But then, so are some first and third and - if the band ever get that far - some ninth and tenth albums. It's all a question of situation and circumstance, the collision of time and space that dictates how things go.
For Tellison, it just so happened that time and space collided and conspired before (and for) their second album. While some bands may use the ‘sophomore slump' as an excuse, for this London-based quartet - comprised of singer/guitarist SH Davidson, guitarist/singer Peter Phillips, bassist Andrew Tickell and drummer Henry Danowski - the term ‘difficult second album' is, if anything, a myopic understatement. Back in 2007, it seemed as if Tellison were on the verge of big things - their London shows were full of people singing along to every word of every song and their debut album ‘Contact! Contact!', released towards the end of that year, was highly acclaimed. 2008 continued in that vein for a while but then, somewhere along the way, the momentum fizzled out.
The band didn't disappear, but they withdrew into the shadows and the clamour that had surrounded them slowly faded away, except when they played the occasional gig. Four years after the release of ‘Contact! Contact!' however, the band are once more emerging into the light. "It's taken a long time," sighs Davidson, "but life just got in the way. ‘Contact!' was a weird one, because we did it whilst everyone was at University. I was in my first year and Pete was finishing up at Oxford. We did as much as we could, but that was managed by playing shows at night then driving back to everyone's halls, dumping them off for the next day's lectures and doing the same thing day after day. It was cool, but it was difficult. We toured quite a bit for that album to push it and see what would happen, but it gradually wrapped up and everybody went back to doing what we'd been doing all along. Then after Uni we suddenly had rent to pay so everyone got jobs and things just got quieter. We'd hoped we'd be free to write a new record, but it took a lot longer than we'd anticipated. We felt frustrated with our situation too, because we found we weren't doing anything we hadn't done before and we didn't want to just cross our fingers and hope for the best again."
In order to avoid that predicament, Tellison changed everything. They left their old label and management with the intention of relaunching the band. Time was moving on, and the pressures of reality were bearing down harder than ever, but they weren't going to be defeated. They were determined to write and record that second album, to move on and out of the rut they'd inadvertently fallen into, to use the time they'd unwillingly taken out to their advantage. It took a while, but the four-piece were finally back on track. "Eventually, we picked ourselves up again," says Davidson. "And I think, in a way, it was good to have such a long break. We took our time a bit more instead of trying to rush and say ‘Let's make a new record now and put it out as soon as we can'. We had to be, and ended up wanting to be, a bit more considered about everything."
The result is ‘The Wages Of Fear'. It's a record that positively thrives as a result of the long and arduous circumstances of its making. In fact, it's fair to say that it wouldn't exist had Tellison not had struggled so much - it was born out of that creative crisis, brought into existence precisely because the four-piece were unable to create. As Davidson sings in the first verse on opening track ‘Get On'- "I'm a writer / I've got a bit of a problem / I picked up some moves in my youth / And I'm scared that I've lost them." The irony, of course, is that nothing has been lost. Although these twelve songs are riddled with the same insecurities and doubts, frustrations and misgivings, fears and worries, that plagued the band, they're stronger as a result. Erudite and literary, emotive and gut-wrenching, ‘The Wages Of Fear' is partly autobiographical, partly fiction, but wholly fuelled by the struggle to make it.
"It's definitely come across on the record," says Davidson. "The frustration of just being stuck is quite tangible and there's an odd sense, for us, of being in a band at the moment, because a lot of our peer group have given up. The Dartz of this world, the Sam Isaacs and the Stapletons - all the bands we used to play shows with broke up. I guess they just felt "This isn't going anywhere" so they quit, got day jobs and went back to Uni and stuff. It's an odd feeling, to be the last ones standing, wondering ‘Are we the idiots here who haven't cottoned on?' or ‘Should we just take a deep breath and actually make a go of it?'
‘The Wages Of Fear', then, is that deep breath - and the long exhale afterwards. It takes its name from a 1953 French film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, in which a group of desperate men trapped in a dead-end South American town are hired by a manipulative and dishonest oil company to complete a near suicidal task in the vain hope of earning their passage out of the situation they find themselves in. It's an apt analogy, and one of many literal, intelligent ideas that shapes and moulds the bewilderment felt by the band. ‘Say Silence (Heaven And Earth)', a song that bursts with a desperate, frenzied urgency, takes a quote from Hamlet as its main refrain, while the plaintive, fragile ‘Freud Links The Teeth And The Heart' turns psychosomatic philosophy into the most tender love song. Likewise, the sinister and ominous riff of ‘Tell it To Thebes' recasts Greek mythology as modern, heartbroken malaise, ‘Edith' is a buoyant ode to love that just happens to be centred around American novelist Edith Wharton (1862 - 1937) and closer ‘My Wife's Grave Is In Paris' ends the album on a solemn, distraught note of regret. Yet the literary, erudite and intellectual references that infuse these songs don't detract from their emotional, visceral impact. And nor should they. There's no reason why music can't be intelligent and emotional - kicking you hard in the stomach while simultaneously stimulating your brain. That's precisely what ‘The Wages Of Fear' does, from its very beginning to its very end. Yes, it was a difficult second album - and genuinely so - but the bruises and the scratches, the physical and emotional trauma, the blood, sweat and wasted years, were all absolutely worth it.