Released at a time when any UK four piece with guitars was being mercilessly marketed as Britpop and ‘indie’, Mansun’s Attack of the Grey Lantern is an album that succeeded, not because, but despite, the hyperbole around it. Schizophrenic image problems or not, Mansun had spent the months prior to the release of their debut supporting the likes of The Manic Street Preachers and releasing a string of well received EPs. Standing defiantly apart from the more knuckle-dragging tendencies that were all too common in British guitar music at the time, Mansun’s audience were by and large those that were disillusioned with the lack of ambition or originality in a lot of the more commercially successful acts of the era. Add to this the fact that Mansun were signed to Parlophone, meant that the ‘indie’ tag was never going to stick, and you got the feeling that they were an act that the press and music industry looked upon as something of an oddity.
Imagine then everyone’s surprise when Attack of the Grey Lantern crashed into the top of the charts with it’s big guitars, John Barry-esque orchestrations and semi-concept album vibe. Chart topping albums were just not meant to happen to an act like Mansun, but the fact that it did indicated that the writing was on the wall for those whose musical originality didn’t go much further than copying obscure Neil Innes tunes and claiming that they were original compositions. While many albums of the era were little more than hit singles padded out with filler, Attack of the Grey Lantern was an album that skilfully balanced ambition with accessibility, perfectly weighted between a series of commercial hit tunes and a truly cohesive album.
Clever, playful and tuneful, Attack of the Grey Lantern is an album which benefits from the combined efforts and skills of the band. Dominic Chad’s guitar work always marked Mansun out from the crowd, as does Andie Rathbone’s drumming, which was considerably more ornate than that of other acts. Stove’s bass playing had gone from gloriously untutored, to adept in the studio, but it was on stage that his brooding presence truly came into its own, while Paul Draper managed to deliver top draw vocals and guitar work, while ensuring Mansun had a unique sound in the studio by way of his not inconsiderable production nous.
Attack of The Grey Lantern wasn’t just about the sound though, it was about the songs. While “The Chad Who Loved Me” and “Mansun’s Only Love Song” may seem terribly self referential, they were still self-aware enough to be tongue in cheek. Both “Taxloss” and Wide Open Space” proved to be solid hits, but also adaptable enough to withstand remixes without sounding awful, while “Stripper Vicar” and “Egg Shaped Fred” quickly established themselves as crowd pleasers during Mansun’s rapturously received live gigs. Album closer “Dark Mavis” ties the whole thing together gloriously, proving that it was still capable of creating an album that was more than the sum of its not inconsiderable parts. Attack of the Grey Lantern relies on each of its songs being present and correct, and the removal of any of them would mean it would be out of balance. Having said that, the album plays its ace card after the main album ends by way of its hidden track. By this point in the mid 90s hidden tracks were now a bored cliché rather than the delightful surprise they once had been, however Mansun’s “An Open Ended Letter to the Lyrical Train Spotter” worked, not only because it was the best song on an album full of superlative tunes, but that it found the band in nodding acknowledgement of the obsessiveness of its audience, and the fact that it was done on the band’s debut album is a testament to the bond between Mansun and their audience.
Attack of the Grey Lantern is something of a one off album. Mansun could have delivered facsimiles of it for the next few years and kept their fans happy, but decided to follow it up with the challenging and convoluted Six, before record label pressure forced them to dilute their ambitiousness, leaving their debut album as the band’s monument to accessibly ambitious art-rock