The first couple of listens to this left me feeling little more than horrible disappointment. The bleak, claustrophobic and often nonsensical introspections that litter My Dark Places were, at first glance, a poor substitute for the shaded sentiments that I had come to love Dan Treacy's Television Personalities for. It wasn't that the points of discussion had changed much - Treacy seems to always find his best songs hidden in moments of self-reflection. It just seemed that now the mirror had smashed, and the tunes he came up with were as broken and fragmented as the man that stared back at him from the shards of shattered glass.
This lack of structure and focus is exemplified by second song and recent single 'All The Young Children On Crack'. It is - roughly - the aural equivalent of waking up at 4:47am drenched in pools of cold sweat, only to be faced with feverish hallucinations which fill your bedroom with possessed pre-schoolchildren and drawing pins. Thankfully, I've managed to avoid crack so far. Treacy though, it appears, may not have been so lucky - or unlucky, of course, depending on your disposition.
Regarded by many as 'Britain's finest cult band', (however dubious that honour), this release means they have - despite recent problems - continued with Treacy at the helm to produce their ninth studio album in 29 years. It is those 'recent problems' (Treacy went missing in 1999 and wound up on a prison boat off the Dorset Coast in 2004, with rumours abound of heavy drug use, breakdowns and homelessness) which broke the mirror that gave us this aptly named record – perhaps making that relative lack of structure more understandable.
Armed with this knowledge, repeated listenings reveal the record for what it truly is - the most human of comeback records. Still unsure of himself, he reports on more than the defiance which most other bands would perhaps be keen to promote in his situation - wary, it seems, of Disney-fying the trials of the several years passed since their last recorded material in 1996. No, My Dark Places is bona fide, warts 'n' all reality CD. Self-loathing, paranoia, bitterness, confusion and delirium all stand present and correct alongside that defiance in the latest edition of a pop music diary that has been inked for 29 years.
While reading someone else’s diary is always going to be voyeuristic, you never get the feeling that Dan doesn't want you peering around inside his aching head. In fact, perhaps in some deliberate way, that ache of ever-present bleakness only serves to make the more upbeat moments more beautifully defiant - 'She Can Stop Traffic' and the album's title track shining examples of this. Tracks like 'I'm Not Your Typical Boy' are good enough to sustain an album that is perhaps 5 or 6 tracks too long - its fragile lament a welcome voice among the curled lip sneering of prison-wife play-away anthem 'Special Chair' and the pathetic car crash that is 'Sick Again'.
If the rumours are true, then it is easy to see Treacy taken from the head-spinning maelstrom that had made his life particularly messy and, when thrown in a cell, thrown back into the bedroom where songs like 'Diary Of A Young Man' were penned, their sense of isolation and longing pronounced here more than ever. Presumably without a record player in his box-room, or at least any records beyond the prison boat's library, he seems to succumb to looping certain songs repeatedly in his head. My Dark Places directly references, among countless others, the Velvet Underground ('Velvet Underground') Elvis ('Dream The Sweetest Dreams') and even 70s reggae duo Althia and Donna. As he sourly puns "Uptown Top Wanking!" over the top of the ripped-off bass riff in 'Ex-Girlfriend Club' you can't help but wonder about the relevance of this to a song that pours scorn all over former lovers. Did Dan slip Althia and/or Donna one back in the day? They aren't the prettiest of girls. Maybe he's just vexed cos they got closer to TOTP than he ever did.
And maybe I am looking at this record in the wrong way; trying too hard to find justification for what is largely an unenjoyable record. After all, while the sincerity and directness that Treacy employs manages to skilfully transport you into his world, his world is in no way a constantly enjoyable place to be. But that skill for arousing empathy in a listener holds (just) enough weight to make me sympathetic to his plight - which is not something I can say for the disappointing records that many other favourite bands have subjected me to. The Television Personalities remain so recognisably human that you can't help but make excuses for them. Handle with care.