The Inability To Write
I've been wanting to do a review of the new Embrace album since last week when I got hold of a copy. I thought it would be good to write a review for indietron of a CD that wasn't even in the shops yet. Realising I guess that nobody would really see it until we had finished designing the site (whenever that will be, I dunno, it's bugging me though how lazy I'm being), I didn't do it. I also thought the album was sensational and wanted to do it justice.
During a slow afternoon yesterday I knocked up the below review. I'm not 100% happy with it. I don't think it flows very well, it meanders when it should attract the attention of whoever reads it. At one stage I thought I was going to end up writing a book about the history of Britpop. I'll leave that to Stuart Macaroni. I also think my review is occasionally cliched and shows that I was sometimes struggling for superlatives.
Writing about music is always difficult, and sometimes totally futile. Music should always be about emotions, yet it is hard to get these across to somebody, especially when the emotional effect that music gives you is always personal to yourself.
To express my emotions I'll usually resort to swear words, this will usually have the desired effect, as long as I want to appear angry, bitter and mildly psychotic. I tried to write the below review in a way that shows that the new Embrace album makes me feel fantastic. I deliberately steered clear of expletives, and therefore found my task ten times harder. I had to stop myself writing 'this track is fucking fantastic' on numerous occasions as I wanted to be more inventive. Which is probably why it disappoints me slightly, as I don't think I've been inventive enough.
So here is the rough draft of the review, I'll keep poring over it until I give myself a nosebleed, and it'll probably look way different on indietron. Still, I'd like to record something that drove me mad yesterday afternoon.
Britpop threw up a handful of bands which crossed over the indie/student divide and became hugely popular in the country as a whole. Oasis, Blur and maybe Pulp are examples of this. As the Britpop flame flickered and died around 1997-1998, it produced possibly it's final band that grabbed the public consciousness in The Verve. As success surrounded them though, they blew up on the launchpad, an inevitable end for such a fractured band. Oasis produced a woeful third album, just when their fame was at its height; Blur and Pulp took a step back and retreated into their artistic and experimental side.
The country moved on, The Stereophonics and later Travis picked up large followings but nothing like those strange days from 1994-1997 when guitar bands sprung up all over the place and even your granny had heard of them all.
Whereas the early years of Britpop were about being brash, full of coke and "mad fer'it", bands such as The Verve and Embrace marked a move away from that. Tony Blair was being all touchy-feely, Princess Di had been killed, we were meant to be in touch with our feelings. There was still the cocky swagger there in the music, but it was okay to show your vulnerability.
Embrace had their anthemic call to arms (All You Good Good People), the confrontational don't mess with me or my mates number (One Big Family) and the sensitive lost love song (Come Back To What You Know). The first album hit the top of the charts, but it showed on actually listening to it that what you'd heard so far was not so much a façade but rather not the whole truth.
The big and bold numbers on The Good Will Out were the ones that hit you straight away, guitar pop with colossal choruses. They were the ones I liked at first, but then I was driving around with the album in my car and realised I had my mouth open in disbelief. I'd gone shopping, but had to abandon the trip so I could listen again. And again.
Songs such as Retread, That's All Changed Forever and Higher Sights had hidden their beauty from me on the first couple of listens. Now they revealed it all. I was speechless. I know people to this day who will call Embrace "sub-oasis drivel" which shows a staggering level of ignorance. The Gallagher brothers couldn't dream of or even understand making a batch of records so delicate, beautiful, powerful yet also understated.
It guaranteed that Embrace were never going to be The Stereophonics, and gather that laddish following. It gave them a support though, and one which to this very day seems uncommonly committed and loyal. Mark Beaumont may call them "fey indie wimps" but it seems quite hard to pigeonhole a typical fan.
Second album 'Drawn From Memory' was more from the same blueprint. Songs such as 'Save Me' will get casual fans dancing and jumping up and down, but the sensitive and unassuming fan will be the one quietly hoping for the band to play that albums title track.
It was the law of diminishing returns however, Drawn From Memory sold less than its predecessor and bands such as Travis and Coldplay were the ones in the limelight. It was strange to see so many people flocking to the "emote-lite" version of what Embrace had been doing for a couple of years. Both Travis and Coldplay are not afraid to show their emotions on their sleeves and to let you know what sensitive boys they are. And that is part of the problem I have with them - the fact that it is all for show, the emotion and feeling in the record is open for you straight away, like a cheap whore. There are no hidden levels, no surprises. It's all there for you on the first listen. It makes them sound a bit wet and anodyne. My other problem being with them (this is more about Coldplay than Travis) is that they just don't have the tunes.
Embrace's third album fell into this trap. If You've Never Been was mellow and fell in the category that I mention above. Wonder and Make It Last were great tunes, yet it all felt signposted; it felt like it had been made so mellow and quiet to help people pick out the emotion in the songs.
It didn't sell well, Embrace fans thought that this was a wrong turn to take and the casual listener had moved on. The well of Embrace tunes seemed to have run dry.
The band was dropped by Hut records, apparently owing the label 1.7 million pounds. If a large gap in time had been left before the band were snapped up by Independiente then I think that may have been it, but the labels head honcho was a big fan of the band.
Out Of Nothing owes a lot to Independiente boss Andy MacDonald and the producer Youth. Both showed the band the way back to the path, and that for a song to elicit feelings in the listener it didn't have to be whispered. Youth produced The Good Will Out and through a series of fractious arguments and shouting matches, he wrestled control of the sound of the current record. The band regained their 'mojo' and once again realised that you can produce powerful and emotive songs without losing the point behind it, or it sounding bombastic.
Out of Nothing is sensational. The sound of a band with its fire re-ignited, who know the way they want to go. It is populist, unafraid of how "full-on" it sounds and whereas it may shout out 'here I am!', it is not all on show here. There is a depth to each track that Chris Martin would stab fair-trade coffee growers to obtain.
Opener Ashes was meant to be a slow piano ballad. It would have taken the If You've Never Been route and been 'quite nice'. Producer Youth cranked it up, added a strong "four to the floor" beat and turned it into a monster. Whereas before it would have been an album track for obsessive fans to…well obsess over, now it is a call to arms and the next single. Embrace have found their lucky bag of huge choruses again and Ashes has one of the biggest. Not the biggest however.
Someday has been in the chorus bag for a few years but has never had the right verse attached to it. Well it does now, and the song could knock down walls. Many songs start with a quiet verse and then build up to a chorus. Someday starts with what sounds like a chorus, then straps a bigger chorus on top of it. You're left wondering where the hell the song can go from here, until the planet sized chorus arrives. I actually think it may be a bit too much for a single, sheer euphoria can seem out of place on a radio. Live though I think it could explode venues.
Sandwiched in-between Ashes and Someday is Gravity, the Chris Martin penned track. It sounds like a very good Coldplay song and an Embrace b-side. On it's own it stood as a fairly decent track, here though it just looks way out of its depth. And as I mentioned before, the depth thing is the whole problem. To gain your attention Gravity will tap you on the shoulder, the rest of this album would punch you in the face.
After Someday the CD cannot keep going 'up'. So the next two tracks take their foot off the gas. Again though Looking As You Are and Wish 'Em All Away could have strayed dangerously close to being insipid and inconsequential if this wasn't the new Embrace. Both tracks are heavily melodic but show a power that is reminiscent of the Higher Sights and Retread combo on The Good Will Out.
They also perfectly prepare for Keeping, a track that reminds me of those early days listening to the debut album. On the first couple of listens I thought it sounded quite nice, now I find the appropriate superlative hard to find. Built from a spiralling chorus which should finally put to bed questions about Danny McNamara's voice, it offers probably my favourite lyrics on the whole album. It is a simple tale of love lost and never bettered, but the melody and lyrics are in perfect harmony. The overall result is dizzying.
Spell It Out is standard anthemic fare, another big chorus and another potential live favourite.
Youth got his way on pretty much everything, all was to be bigger and bolder on this record. There was however one track which the band refused completely to compromise on. In a way Glorious Day feels out of place, a delicate ballad, it probably would have sat well on If You've Never Been. Though it would have been one of the best tracks on there. The lyrics are the most immediate, yet some of the most affecting; the chorus is from the heavens.
In many ways the last three tracks on Out Of Nothing sound like they've come from a different album. The first seven tracks are all melodic guitar indie/pop, but whereas Glorious Day was a sumptuous ballad, Near Life and Out Of Nothing are almost 'experimental' guitar tracks.
Near Life has a mumbled lyric, squalling guitars and shows a side to the band that not many have seen before. It may be a taster of what is to come, it may just be a showcase of "hey look what we could do if we wanted to". Its swooping guitars and virtually wordless chorus may not appeal to current fans immediately, though it may actually attract new ones wondering who the hell has done this.
The album title track starts as a ballad but then explodes into more squalling guitars, a thrilling climax to an album. It is epic, different, yet in many ways a trademark Embrace album closer.
The pre-conceived ideas of Embrace as dreary soppy miserabilists has always been unfair. With the arrival of Out of Nothing it now seems laughable. As a return from the wilderness and a step back into the limelight it is virtually faultless. Any mistakes made here could have been fatal to the survival of the band, but they have made a bold and brave return; an album unafraid to attach a huge tune to its heartstrings.