Not giving your first umpteen (okay, three) releases a title, or even a number à la Led Zeppelin, is a bold artistic move, but it probably doesn’t help to sell your records. The House of Love followed The House of Love (aka The German Album, a collection of early singles) by a year and preceded The House of Love (aka Fontana) by two, but it’s this The House of Love that still stands as singer/songwriter Guy Chadwick’s finest and most complete achievement to date. Indeed, even in the not-quite-classic form discussed here – the version issued from 1989 onwards that adds the single “Destroy the Heart” – The House of Love is one of the very, very few albums ever released where not a single song is noticeably weaker than the others. The Queen is Dead has “Vicar in a Tutu” and “Some Girls are Bigger than Others” on it after all, and even Revolver has “Yellow Submarine,” but while the mood of The House of Love is mostly various shades of gloom and despondency, its songs are a varied and vital bunch from start to finish.
Originally a five-piece band that included guitarist and co-singer Andrea Heukamp, just prior to recording this, their debut album proper, The House of Love slimmed down to the quartet of singer/guitarist Guy Chadwick, lead guitarist Terry Bickers, drummer Pete Evans and bassist Chris Groothuizen, and in contrast with The German Album’s group hug of a cover photo, the sleeve design for The House of Love opts for the Cheap Trick style two-on-the-front, two-on-the-back configuration, in the process suggesting a kind of Morrissey/Marr, Rourke/Joyce dynamic within the band; misleading, insofar as all of the album’s songs were written by Chadwick alone, although Bickers’s fluid, shimmering guitar playing was a crucial element of the band’s early sound. Nevertheless, the band have often been compared with The Smiths, less for their sound – which is a little closer to Echo & the Bunnymen than Morrissey & co – than for the place they occupied in the indie pantheon as the ‘80s drew to a close. Natural in a way as, despite the differences between the bands, The House of Love’s career took off in the wake of The Smiths’ split, and from their debut single “Shine On” onwards, they helped to fill the void for bereft Smiths fans. To this day, The House of Love remains a definitively indie rock album and the band, notwithstanding the fact that they later signed to Fontana/PolyGram, are a classic UK indie act.
In every way, The House of Love is amazingly assured for a debut album, perhaps because, although the band had only been together for a couple of years, Chadwick, already in his 30s and on his second marriage, had plenty of life experience to fuel his songwriting. The singer’s peripatetic childhood as the son of an army officer in Singapore and Malaysia seems to inform the lyrics of several of the album’s songs, as it had some of the singles that made up The German album, and The House of Love are notable among their peers for indulging in none of the sometimes charming, sometimes mawkish, cutesy sentimentality that characterised indie music at the time. The House of Love may have formed in 1986, but they would never be associated with the C86 bands who dominated the UK music weeklies at that time. Musically, Guy Chadwick was initially inspired by the Jesus and Mary Chain, something he had in common with My Bloody Valentine, another band who formed in the mid-1980s but only achieved success with Creation records towards the end of the decade. MBV went on to be the architects of shoegaze, but though it’s often overlooked, the sound of the early House of Love, the combination of Terry Bickers’s ethereal guitar and Chadwick’s understated vocals, was also influential on the wave of shoegaze bands who formed around the end of the decade. Whatever its roots though, The House of Love has its own distinct identity and from cover to lyrics to tunes, a sense of completeness that makes it one of the best and most perfectly realised albums of its era.
The perfect opening track and the album’s only single, “Christine” is everything that is great about The House of Love in three minutes and twenty-six seconds. An early song, the recording is the only one on the album to feature Andrea Heukamp and it erupts from the speakers with a Cocteau Twins-like wall of celestial, beautifully melodic guitar noise, with Chris Groothuizen’s bass giving the song its form. Throughout the album, Groothuizen and Pete Evans are crucial, because for all of the album’s atmospheric qualities, it’s a collection of (admittedly glum) pop songs rather than epic, shoegaze style soundscapes. “Christine,” is haunting and romantic, but it is its strength as a song that makes it a great single and not just a beautiful piece of music.
Perhaps even better than “Christine,” “Hope” is a sullen, bitter song that gathers tension in its sparse verses and releases it in the album’s finest chorus. For the first time on the album, Chadwick’s lyrics explore spiritual imagery as well as the usual boy/girl themes, and, like every song on the album, it’s short, instantly memorable and perfectly formed.
Throughout the early period of The House of Love there are songs that have riffs which, if played with distortion instead of reverb and shimmer, would sound like rock rather than indie pop, and “Road” is one of the best. A song about the yearning for escape, it references the rootlessness and alienation of Chadwick’s early years explicitly in lines like “Who that’s boy, always on his own/Let’s ignore him, he’s ugly.” After the intimate sound of the first couple of songs, “Road” is another, contrasting showcase for Bickers’s shimmering textures, the guitars here giving the song a big, open sound that carries on to the next track.
“Sulphur” is another riff-centric song, Evans and Groothuizen driving the track as if it was a stadium rock anthem rather than a darkly self-lacerating song, apparently inspired by Chadwick’s failed marriage; “Why is my enemy so deep inside/Buried in black coal/I sold you a favour in the dark/Got a salt dream and a red scar.” The album’s most dramatic and perhaps most intense piece of work, it has a strangely restless chorus that never feels resolved as the song settles back into its driving riff.
“Man to Child”
Far more placid and beautiful, but even more bleak, “Man to Child” has something of the subdued, hopeless quality of the song “Plastic” from The German Album but is lyrically less opaque. Concerned with the passing and especially the wasting of time, “Man to Child” finds Chadwick reflecting on finding himself nearing 30 and apparently no closer to achieving his goals: “Jesus, where did the time go?/Holy God, where is the money now?/Father, what am I doing here?/Mother, where is the love?” It also has one of the album’s prettiest melodies and some of Bickers’s most delicate playing.
Lyrically far less straightforward, “Salome” is a short, sharp rock song in the mould of “Road.” Only two and a half minutes long, it has a fantastic, busy riff and dark and disturbing imagery, not least the chorus or refrain, “I love the way she cries.”
“Love in a Car”
Probably the most shoegaze-like song on the album, as well as the longest at four minutes, “Love in a Car” is shaped by shimmering, reverb-laden guitar which mimicks the waves of the sea alluded to in the lyrics’ series of fragmentary images. Intimate and yet full of regret, the song is an affecting combination of soothing melody and tempestuous emotion.
A more straightforward piece of indie guitar pop and, as the title indicates, the nearest the album has to offer to a happy song, “Happy” is, lyrically, mostly a catalogue of misery and misfortune, but although it sounds far from joyous, the chorus “But I’m so happy to be with you” is not so much ironic as a slightly sheepish apology to a partner for the admission that love isn’t necessarily all you need.
Almost at times like a lullaby, “Fisherman’s Tale” contemplates a more final kind of escape than “Road,” but despite its morbid aspects – “Maybe when we drown/The fish will be our friends” – it doesn’t pretend more than a momentary impulse, and the song’s lovely, enigmatic chorus and Bickers’s beautiful guitar make it an unsettling treat.
Technically the closing track for the album, and the first song Guy Chadwick ever wrote, “Touch Me” has a similar, intimate feel to “Love in a Car,” the vocals cocooned in a swathe of flickering guitar and feedback. Although lyrically a quite desolate cry for human contact, there’s a feeling of weary, exhausted warmth to the song that gives it an embracing quality that was as perfect an ending to the album as “Christine” was an opening.
“Destroy the Heart”
Perfect or not, “Destroy the Heart,” a standalone single, was released shortly after The House of Love and, although only a modest hit, it marked the band’s first appearance in the UK top 100 singles chart – and as such, was appended to further issues of the album. Luckily, it works just as well as a closing track as “Touch Me” did, although it ends the album on a far less soothing note. One of the band’s catchiest songs, it brings together the more rock-style riffs of some of the album’s tracks with the pop hooks of early singles like “Shine On.” It’s hardly cheerful: “Destroy the heart, she said/Better soon we will be quite dead/She wanted freedom not a shackled man/But I need her more than I need air” – but Chadwick is a master of writing songs filled with regret and unhappiness that aren’t depressing to listen to, and “Destroy the Heart” is one of his best.
The House of Love was far from a flash in the pan – the band have gone on, in various configurations, to make some good – and some great – albums, but none are as consistent or perfectly balanced as this one. Sometimes you get it right the first time.