As separations go, this one couldn’t have been more civil. There were no awkward exchanges or scores to be settled when The Feeling decided to go on an indefinite hiatus in 2016.
Merely a sense that the next challenges that lay ahead didn’t necessarily fall within the parameters of a group that had existed in one form or another since they were teenagers. Five albums in ten years had yielded a string of radio classics such as Sewn, Never Be Lonely, Without You, I Thought It Was Over and Fill My Little World, the group’s status cemented by the celebratory live shows that earned them an intensely loyal fanbase right up to the back-to-basics power pop of their eponymous fifth album. “It wasn’t like we were splitting up, as such,” recalls bassist Richard Jones, “more that we agreed to put nothing in the diary.”
The timing was apt, as it turned out. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – the musical co-written by front man Dan Gillespie Sells alongside Tom MacRae and Jonathan Buterell – had premiered at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre to a rapturous reception, before commencing a West End run that continues to this day. With Film4 acquiring Everybody’s Talking About Jamie for a film adaptation, other studios started to beat a path to Dan’s door. For the rest of the group, family seemed to merge effortlessly with the day-to-day business of playing music: Ciaran and Kevin Jeremiah (keyboards and guitar) recorded an acclaimed album of original folk-flecked compositions. Richard Jones balanced session work alongside touring with his wife Sophie Ellis-Bextor – whose house band also featured Ciaran on keyboards. And yet, like one of those phone calls where you keep saying goodbye, but neither party wants to put the phone down, The Feeling just couldn’t quite bring themselves to end it.
“I think I realised it almost straight away,” smiles Dan, “I think there might have been five minutes, several years previously, where I was like, ‘Maybe I’d be liberated from The Feeling if I was just Dan.’ And then the next thought was, like ‘Hang on, I hate being on my own! And pretty much any musical idea I have, the four musicians around me know what I’m getting at.’
Even to the point that when we were working on the soundtrack to the musical, these were the guys I reached out to. In our own tiny way, it was a bit like when the Bee Gees stopped making records in the 80s but carried on working together for other projects.”
Fans of the band will attest that this was a “break-up” like no other. As well as playing on the Everybody’s Talking About Jamie soundtrack, there was also a tour to celebrate the twelfth anniversary of their triple platinum debut album Twelve Stops And Home – which, as Richard recalls, “re-engaged us with what it was about the band that made that such a special album. We were selling out bigger venues and this time around, the audience knew every word of every song – and that seemed to have a huge effect on Dan especially.”
“It’s all about distance,” suggests Dan, “You look back at certain records, and there’s always some objective beyond writing the actual songs – be it trying to write hit singles [Together We Were Made] or just having the five of us playing on it with no additional instruments [Boy Cried Wolf]. and this time around, none of that mattered. It was just a matter of doing what felt right for each song. If the songs didn’t have a strong enough reason to exist, then I just didn’t finish them.” What Dan swiftly noticed as the 2020 lockdown stretched into the summer was the effect of having written songs for a musical.
“Every line has to do its share of heavy lifting. If you put in something just to fill up the space, it confuses the audience because they’re closely following a narrative.” And, of course, as the extraordinary events of 2020 played out in the world beyond Dan’s East London home, there was no shortage of inspiration to “fill up the space.” Taken as a whole, the resulting songs on The Feeling’s self-produced sixth album Loss. Hope. Love amount to an existential stock check: a montage of epiphanies – some personal, some less so. As you familiarise yourself with the songs on the record, you’ll recognise the centrality of the title to its contents. Propelled along a rhythmic rolling-stock rattle reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Big Love, There’s A Word For It is a grown-up love song that addresses the aching absence of a presence in your life to whom you can turn and feel seen – before hope floods in to fill the vacuum, to be redeemed by love.
The transition from loss to hope and ultimately to love also marks the emotional arc of another song, Lost. Perhaps more than any other song on the album, this serves to remind you exactly why Dan Gillespie Sells never needs to look beyond the band he has fronted for twenty years when it comes to actualising the arrangements he hears in his head. With strings that swoop and dive around a melody that locates a hitherto hidden point of intersection between The Alan Parsons Project and ABBA, Dan drills into his own experiences of depression in order to mine inspiration for one of the album’s absolute standout performances.
Adhering to the old maxim that a writer’s job is to write the truest thing they know, the first songs to emerge from Dan’s enforced solitude were attempts to position himself in the
chaotic dichotomy of a world where the streets were empty yet the noise was deafening. Had some other musician not once remarked that all you need is love, Dan might have done so.
But then, perhaps different times call for a slightly different iteration of that message – perhaps a reminder that if you appeal to the best in people, they’ll repay your faith. Certainly, that seems to be the premise from which the multi-tracked harmonies of Love People spider out. “Exactly that,” nods Dan, “That’s why there’s that line in there about getting rid of the flags. Just get rid of them all. I don’t even like the queer flag in principle. Because identity isn’t our weapon – it’s their weapon. We’re not represented by flags. We’re all better than that.”
On an album which often strikes a tone that can only be described as militantly conciliatory, there are several moments that speak of a desire not to let identity politics blind us to each other’s human frailties. Revisiting the route-one power pop attack of Feeling favourites such as Love It When You Call and Turn It Up, No One To Blame sees the band setting themselves strict sonic parameters. “I love the section in David Byrne’s book How Music Works about how self-imposed limitations can actually be liberating, and that was a case in point. Our markers were 1978-82: The Cars’ No One To Blame with a garnish of Elvis Costello and Cheap Trick. The plastic end of new wave!” On the song itself, Dan pinballs between telling his subject that perhaps their unhappiness might not be wholly society’s fault. Could it be though, that one of the people being addressed in lines such as “Every time you fail, you could be learning more/One day you’ll discover, that’s what you’re living for” might be the person singing it? “Oh God, well, yes, definitely my younger self. That’s the point in a way. I love that about people, the way we’re all trying to figure it out, and the mistakes we make along the way.”
The feeling of finding yourself lost in the game of modern life is increasingly familiar even when there isn’t a pandemic or a culture war to contend with. Indeed, that sense of trying (and sometimes failing) to keep panic at bay is uncannily evoked in the first minute of Cascade, especially the lines, “In the garden/Weeds are growing/What can I survive not knowing?” – a question effectively answered by a pyrotechnically arresting performance from his bandmates. And yet, amid the ticker-tape tangle of information and misinformation, some things
aren’t up for negotiation. Wrong elegantly calls to account the forces in power that use divisive rhetoric as a smokescreen for their own self-interest. But because you’re listening to The Feeling, such sentiments come not in a discordant rage, but in a caramel-smooth production which recalls the FM pop balm of Paul McCartney’s later work with Wings. Both here and on There’s A Word For It, it’s a joy to hear a band using the studio as an imperfect mirror to all the shared inspirations of their time together. That’s the Yamaha GS-1 used by Toto on Africa on Never Gave Up, an achingly pretty plea of penitence directed at his partner “after I saw the pain that my inability to commit to our relationship caused him.” Hearing Dan play the song for the first time was, for guitarist Kevin Jeremiah, an unforgettable moment: “We all instantly knew it was something special. And, for me, it’s also a quintessential Dan song inasmuch as he’s absolutely at his best when he’s overwhelmed by feelings that need an external outlet. That was absolutely the case with our first album and it’s also the case with this one.”
On There Is No Music – any sense of deja vu is abetted by the deployment of a Jupiter keyboard, most immediately remembered for its presence in Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark. Echoes of Narada Michael Walden’s Gimme Gimme Gimme also abound in the tempo and production – “a nod,” says Dan, “to the modern soul records of the 80s and 90s that we all loved. As for the song itself – “There is no music/If there is no pain in your heart” – it’s perhaps as simple an exposition of The Feeling manifesto as they’ve committed to notes and chords: “Janet Jackson’s Together Again is one of the most devastating songs I’ve ever heard, yet also one of the most joyful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. My favourite songs are happy and sad – and that perfect point of tension between the two is where I like to create.”
Indeed, this also seems to be the space occupied by For The Future, a loved-up requiem to friends and lovers lost yet not forgotten. With lines such as “For the future we never planned for/When you left us alone on the dance floor” even if Dan makes it to the end of the song without shedding a tear, you might not do: “It’s a song that speaks to a whole generation of people – of queers, actually – who were faced with no choice but to confront unimaginable loss. The reference to the quilt in the song is obviously the NAMES Project AIDS memorial quilt initiated in 1985, which had a square added to it every time AIDS claimed another life. “
For long-time fans of the band, it’s interesting to note a subtle tonal shift between early songs by The Feeling, and the voice on Loss. Hope. Love. The protagonist of early songs like Strange and Fill My Little World was unsure of his place in the world, or indeed the place that the world would ultimately find for him. Contrast that character now, to the hard-won wisdoms that propel the life-affirming chorus of On The Edge. “At its core, it’s just a song that celebrates outsiders,” explains Dan, “I don’t really consider myself and outsider anymore, but it fills me with joy to see this young queer generation – not just the nonsense they have to deal with, but also the nonsense they sometimes come up with and owning their space. Because it’s tough and it’s complicated but they’re up for the fight and that’s brilliant.”
This unabashed delight at the way an emerging generation of adults will ultimately act as a corrective to the mistakes of their parents reveals itself on High Like You, the very first song on Loss. Hope. Love. Perhaps the key lines to keep in mind here are: “Your parents worked for banks in the 80s/Stayed home at night and listened to Enya/Woke up at night to make deals with Kuwaitis/You’re making up for them.” Dan explains: “Perhaps the best thing about living in East London is that you come across these people who have defined themselves against their right-wing, strait-laced parents. Their reaction has been to become queerer than queer and crazier than crazy and party harder than anyone else. I’ve never really been that person, but at least I can thrill vicariously to what they do.”
On an album whose very life-force is a belief that the goodness of people can illuminate a path out of the most abject darkness, the mission statement of Loss. Hope. Love finds its most explicit voice in its beautiful closing song, Morning Light. Speaking about what amounts to a secular prayer for a kinder future, Dan explains, “Sometimes you have to address what’s directly in front of you. We all know someone that didn’t make it. We’ve all been fucking scared. And really, when I sit down to write a song like this, it might sound like I’m addressing the world, but I’m also trying to stop myself from panicking.”
Did he know, when he was writing these songs, that they would form the track listing of a new Feeling album? “I think that fairly early on... yes, that was pretty apparent. I used to be defensive about wanting to make pretty, beautiful music, but I think maybe I’m not so much like that any more. And I have this band, and I’ve been playing with them for over half of my life. They’re my Wrecking Crew. And I never have to explain myself to them. They know me better than I know myself. And really, that’s as much the story of this record
as anything else I could tell you.”
New album ‘Loss. Hope. Love’ is out May 6th 2022 on Island Records