Freshers’ Week

Oh Freshers’ Week. I’ve seen… 15, I think, of you roll by now. One was mine and 14 have been other peoples’. Even though that first one is almost half a lifetime ago now, I still recall it vividly: I remember being left alone in that brown room with a duvet and some posters and a stereo for company. I remember standing around, hundreds of us, outside the Student Union in light drizzle on the first Sunday night, no one sure what was happening, someone suggesting people go into town to find a nightclub, and that seeming like the worst idea in the world. I remember Jon (still the worst human being I’ve ever met), who seemingly had no possessions other than the clothes he stood in, writing the words “YOU FUCKING CUNT” on a hundred pieces of paper and Blu-Tacking them up all over his room like some profane wallpaper. I remember him meeting a girl he’d been at school with, neither of them knowing each other well or knowing that they were coming to the same third-rate university, and them ending up in bed together inside a week, even though she swore she wouldn’t, because, presumably, in those strange, disorienting first few days and weeks, you will cling to anything familiar and reassuring, no matter what. Or did she know Dan from school, and he introduce her to Jon? I don’t think so; Dan was Welsh and they were from Eastbourne. I remember Adam, with his Versace jeans (I had never seen anyone wear Versace jeans before; didn’t know what the logo was), and his enormous cathode ray tube television set, which literally filled his entire desk, preventing him from sitting at it and opening a book. I remember Ginger Nick, with his separates hi-fi and his hip-hop CDs. I remember Dave, from Birmingham, downing a pint in the kitchen and then bringing it up, seemingly still 100% lager, straight back into the stolen pub glass. I remember the guy from Crawley who owned a vintage MG back at home and whose girlfriend wasn’t here and who didn’t seem to deal with things very well. None of us seemed to deal with things very well. Sometimes I think that 18 and 19 year olds today are far more clued up and sussed out than we were. But I doubt it. I remember the delicious, disconcerting freedom, the distance from home, the not wanting to leave campus in those first days because, as strange and unsafe and uncomfortable as it felt, at least I had a safe space within it, however small. I remember not taking part – in societies, the students’ union, the student paper, in studying itself, much of the time – and feeling like I didn’t want to. I remember the incident in the kitchen one night, when I’d been ‘home’ (in the halls of residence flat) reading stuff for a lecture early next morning, and somehow, due to some kind of racial altercation with some guys outside, someone from the flat next door put his hand through our kitchen window whilst drunkenly trying to punch someone on the other side. I remember stemming the blood flow and picking shards of glass from his palm and getting someone to phone an ambulance. I’m sure I’ve written this before in an attempt to exorcise it and make myself feel like I had a more worthwhile university experience. Every time I think about it I’m transported to a set of emotional memories that belong to a different person, a less happy person. I remember a trip home, a desperate, expensive train ticket and a five-hour journey, a night out with whatever friends were left, everything that ought to have been familiar feeling unreal, as if it had slightly tilted off its axis, uncanny and uncomfortable when it should have been reassuring. I remember Magnus the mature student, an impossibly old 28 or so, who had rented a house with his wife, who I could talk about music with. I remember Friday afternoons in The Charles Bradlaugh with Olly and James and Ben and whoever else, reading The Guardian and drinking Guinness. I remember a drama lecturer telling me that after 30 years he had a particular “academic sense of smell” and that I had potential, or likewise, which is what teachers had been telling me, and I’d been ignoring, since I was about 10. I remember it still being flattering. I remember Andy, who was a few years older than us and local. I remember Kazi, who asked me to manage his rap group because I knew who Public Enemy were. I remember Emily and James and the girl with curly hair whose name I can’t recall (Liz?). I remember Ben, and the other Ben, and the third Ben, doing Fine Art. I remember Cat. And her friends who Olly was always in love with. And the two Welsh guys who looked alike and drank together and did their washing, drunkenly, by stealing a shopping trolley and piling their clothes into it and putting it in one of their en suites. I remember the nightclub on three floors – sofas downstairs, dance in the middle, indie and cheese on top – that might have been called The Lounge? I remember buying a Nick Cave album in a tiny independent record shop. I remember John the Geordie, who gave me a Richard Dawkins book, and whose accent was so thick that people thought he was Irish. I remember bumping into James about 6 years after graduating, randomly, in Piccadilly Station while I traversed London after a conference I’d attended. I remember thinking “what are the odds?” I remember Ben asking me if I wanted to go to London with him to take some diamonds across town for his uncle, or something. I remember drinking leftover absinthe at two in the morning rather than write an essay. I remember playing one game of football, scoring a nice left-foot volley that took everyone but me by absolute surprise (because why is this geeky lost guy even playing football) and then not playing again for three years because I hated the football guys on my corridor so much. I remember supporting Roma because the only free-to-air football was Football Italia with James Richardson. I remember evenings buried in the computer room, hours wasted being angry at people on the internet in forums and chatrooms, minidisc player glued to me, convinced the £250 was worth it if I spent 10 evenings spending no money rather than spending £25 on 10 nights out. I remember walking across campus, across town, in the middle of the night, melting my eardrums to Ride or Idlewild or Orbital or whatever. I remember riding through the nature reserve at the back of campus. I remember discovering red wine and jazz and sex and cooking and not understanding or knowing what to do with any of them. I remember seeing a fox on a path in the middle of the park as I walked home at 5am, looking it in the eye. I remember the hoarders who lived next door and the crazy guy three doors down who emptied his house and sold all his possessions at boot sales. I remember buying a hi-fi for the first time; a mobile phone with a contract for the first time; salmon for the first time; chorizo for the first time; a DVD for the first time. I remember going in HMV and Virgin so often that the staff would say hi to me. I remember Spinadisc, and returning a couple of years after graduating and finding it had been turned into a Connexions centre for young people to find training and jobs. I remember not going to graduation. I remember begging to move flats because the football guys on my corridor hated me as much as I hated them (or did they?). I remember the first thing Olly said to me: “I bet you’ve got a wicked stereo”. I remember discovering that Graham was into archery and Charlie sometimes took his kids to McDonalds “because it’s easier”. (Idealistic me thought less of him for that; now I understand.) I remember Mike leaving to go and teach at a better university and feeling like we’d lost something. I remember Xavier and the postgrad with long hair. I remember people turning to each other and mouthing “what the fuck” during initial lectures on critical theory and Marx and semiotics and ideological state apparatus, and me thinking “yes”. I remember Charlie playing the video for “Come To Daddy” in a lecture. I remember getting half a dozen firsts in a row for Philosophy essays. I remember Charlie reading Deleuze out loud and proclaiming it genius even though he didn’t understand it, and thinking this was bullshit. I remember an exam on a Saturday morning in a sports hall that wasn’t even on campus. I remember feeling like it would never end. I remember modules in photography and postmodernism and aesthetics and moral philosophy and directing a play that scored a (really) high first for everyone. I remember being baffled that anyone would stay in that damn town after finishing. I remember rushing home every holiday. I remember drinking alone. And with John. And with Olly and James. And with Ben and Cat. And with Magnus. And with Tom. I remember meeting school friends in the summer and talking about what we were studying and each of thinking we were studying the most important thing ever. I remember kicking down Eli’s door with our landlord because he’d moved out without telling us and left it locked. I remember Liz not turning up for the third year because she’d transferred to another university. I remember Emily telling me that “even your anorak is cool”, which just goes to show that, even if you feel like the most uncool person ever, someone else probably thinks you’re not. I remember thinking my hair looked normal in that first term after I’d dyed it back to brown over the crazy bleachjob I’d had done that summer, only to go home halfway through term and see my reflection under non-striplights and realise I looked ridiculous. I remember wearing flares and a giant corduroy coat a lot. I remember the guy who used to walk a ferret near where we lived in second year. I remember sleeping through a raucous results party. I remember the guy who’d been in our flat the year before coming round on our first night there to sell us drugs. I remember Biggles and Caroline and Chico and Chippy and Miriam and playing Playstation in the kitchen and the guy with badly dyed indie hair (like I can talk) and the Spanish girl and the guy from Exeter who I swear I saw the other week and Tom and Pin and the other Adam who was almost a bit goth and Luke who lent me a Fugazi album and drinking in local pubs that didn’t like students and seeing Coldplay in a tiny venue in town way before their first album (double-header tour with Terris) and going to London and Wolverhampton and Leeds and Blackpool and loads of other places for gigs and album launch parties and waking up in Kingston and getting lost in Brixton and shaving my head and growing my hair and dancing and laughing and drinking and writing some essays and going to some lectures and Graham saying something about the 60s being made up by 100 people in London and his t-shirt of him at the statue of Karl Marx that he wore every week and which got progressively dirtier and dirtier and podiatry and leather technology and occupational health and the library being massively expanded one summer and realising all the buildings were named after nearby villages. I remember having a good time, some times. I didn’t think I’d remember much.

That’s OK

Some words about parenthood, three months in.


By and large social media is a highlights reel or a trailer for how your life is. And we all know that we can be duped into seeing a crappy film by a fancy trailer that edits out the shit bits. By extension, we must also all know, surely, that the person most conspicuously having an easy time of it also has days when they get shat or vomited on or screamed at or woken six times in a night by a baby who just wants to sit on their boob and not actually eat, or days when they feel absolutely isolated and incapable and alone. And that’s OK.

To put it more simply, “There are days when I eat a whole pack of Oreos and cry at you when you get home,” said Emma. And to be fair they’re pretty few and far between – which is great – but they do happen and we should acknowledge that.

We’ve been very lucky – Nora is a pretty smiley, contented, happy baby, and she came into the world, from conception through pregnancy to birth, with relative ease – but she’s also clingy, and sometimes decides that sleep is for wimps, and she’s alert, which means she doesn’t want to be left alone, and she’s also a baby, and babies are gross and disgusting and full of congealed milk and yellow shit which quite often leaks out of both ends at once. And that’s OK.

“I think it’s about how you perceive it. Some people might be going through the same things that we are right now and really struggle. And I’m really trying, which isn’t like me [except it is, Nick], to just accept this and be lead by her.”

We both spend a lot of time trying to put ourselves in Nora’s shoes, as it were; what is she thinking and perceiving right now, how is she feeling, what does this mean to her? And this is incredibly difficult because Nora, three months ago, started from a base of absolutely nothing; no physiological, emotional, or intellectual experience at all. As smiley as Nora is a lot of the time, the entire world is still entirely new to her, and that means it is baffling, and terrifying, and confusing sometimes. And brilliant at others. But when she wakes from an afternoon nap and immediately screams as if she’s terrified, and nothing but loud Aphex Twin and bouncing will calm her, that’s OK, because she’s a baby and the entire world is entirely new to her, and wouldn’t you scream, too?

There are no magic bullets here. If there was ‘one weird old trick’ to getting your baby to sleep / eat / stop crying / lose weight / gain weight / walk / sit up / beg / roll over [delete as appropriate] then the entire world would all be doing it and there’d be no enormous industry selling books (or websites, or apps, or whatever) of advice to paranoid new parents. But every baby is different, and every parent is too, and that’s OK.

This post is pretty unfocused and rambling, and the paragraphs don’t necessarily follow on logically from each other, and that’s OK too; it’s not easy to concentrate on anything for long when the baby monitor might explode. I’ve barely written anything in months – even before Nora arrived – but I’ve had it relatively easy. I’m sleeping in the spare room (so I am actually sleeping, almost as much as I used to), and I still manage a bike ride most weekends, and I’ve had record club a handful of times. But Emma’s life has been turned upside-down as mine’s just been tilted.

“I can’t believe we talked about getting her adopted, and we really meant it [we did!]; looking back she wasn’t ever that difficult.” She wasn’t (mostly still isn’t) a crier, and she slept relatively well early on (even if that’s not the case right now), but in those first few weeks you simply don’t know what the hell is going on or how to deal with it or who/what your baby is, and it does feel like a massive, idiotic mistake, and like you should have bought a house with one less bedroom and a bigger garden and wouldn’t a dog be easier?

“I guess feeding was an obvious issue; she always fed well, but… I was in fucking agony.” We had to get Nora’s tongue-tie cut twice, and she still sometimes causes Emma a lot of pain through latching lazily or coming on and off the boob absent-mindedly (absent-mindedly? She’s a baby!).

Before Nora arrived I kind of expected – and this is ludicrous, but it’s the way culture teaches us, through both religion and science (evolution) to think about ‘progress’ – that there’d be a kind of linear upwards curve in her development and sleep an so on; that is, that she’d get a little bit better every day. But that’s nonsense, and if there is a graph to be plotted then it’s a jagged mountain range of a line, which, yes, is ascending, but with crazy, almost unpredictable troughs caused by developmental surges and growth spurts and “the 4-month sleep regression” (how terrifying does that sound?). And that’s the same for everything. Evolution took millions of years to get from amoebas to ragdoll cats, and, you know, there were dinosaurs and dodos and duck-billed platypuses and all sorts of other miss-steps and oddness en route. Why should babies be any smoother? And that’s OK.

“I know you said [this post] is disjointed but to me it feels really disjointed.” And that’s OK, because I think that’s kind of my point, and the medium is the message, or something. Em’s read plenty of stuff – blogs, books, forums, etc etc – about parenting, because she just naturally does research things without thinking, but we’ve both tried not to read too much stuff (I’ve been very successful at this, as usual), because we want to just kind of work off instinct as much as we can. “Sometimes I let this stuff [points at phrase ‘blogs, books, forums, etc etc’] cloud my judgement, but I’m trying not to. I’m trying to just go with it. Not worry about routines and sleeping through the night and all the things that books and other people put pressure on you to do.” And that’s OK.

Albums bought in 2014

IMG_69172014 was an eventful year – deaths, births, car accidents, and more – and this blog has suffered, because frankly it hasn’t seemed that important to be writing when I could have been riding a bike or looking after a cat (or a baby). But a few people, including my wife, have asked me if I’d be doing an albums-of-the-year post, so I thought I’d oblige. This is it.

Every year I seem to wring my hands about what these lists mean and whether to bother with one, and every year I seem to change the format. Who am I to change the not-habit of a lifetime? Folliwng this year’s hand-wringing, it strikes me that the fairest way to write about the music of 2014 is to detail, even if only barely, every single record released in 2014 that we bought. So that’s what this is.

They’re presented in vague order of preference, just so you know. I may cluster some together thematically if I don’t have masses to say about them individually.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict
If I have to ordain a singular ‘favourite’ then this is it; it seems a little weird to pick an album wherein the singer exclaims “I’ll never have any children” as my favourite from the year when Emma and I had a baby together, but nonetheless I liked this one better than any others, despite, or possibly in part because of, that particular lyric. Perhaps it was a case of weird contradictory emotions. A strange sense of denial of the reality approaching us as I sang along with that phrase, and just about every other on the album too. Somehow, despite our different circumstances, I identified with, and also twisted to my own emotional and aesthetic ends, Owen’s music.

And Owen is simply fantastically good at music; the tunes and arrangements here are his most splendid, rewarding, and direct yet – the melodies forthright and nagging at the same time, the instrumentation always surprising and clever and exciting too. I’m still noticing new things in it, and will probably continue to do so for some time. I wish I was clever enough and musical enough (I don’t play a note on any instrument, nor ever have) to ‘get’ all the things that Owen’s doing; but you don’t need to ‘get’ them intellectually to enjoy them aesthetically / phenomenologically, and feel them emotionally.

I played this at both record clubs, but only wrote about it for one.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
I reviewed this for The Quietus, and, bar Embrace and Owen Pallett, this was the record I probably played most in 2014. I wish more non jazz fans would give them a chance. I gather they have another, apparently very different, record, due in March, which I’m looking forward to immensely.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
This was imbued with a significant amount of poignancy simply because one of Tom’s songs is about having a daughter and another is about a pet dying, both of which happened to us this year. Beyond that, Present Tense was business as usual for Wild Beasts, which is to say that it’s marvellous, and continued on the evolution / maturation path they’ve been going down. Guitars wane in favour of synths, the drummer continues to play like a beautiful drum machine, the two voices are still amazing, and there’s a musical and emotional sophistication that most other artists simply don’t get near. At first I thought this was just another really good Wild Beasts record, but over the year it revealed itself as actually being another really good Wild Beasts record, if you get what I mean. They’re fabulous.

I played this at one of our record clubs, shortly after it came out, if you want to read more.

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
I played this at record club too, and stand by what I said back then; I may have played it less as the year wore on, but I suspect that was probably just down to the increasing amount of records from the year that I’d procured. This was, and remains, intensely musical and enjoyable, a jazz-inflected, live-feeling synth-pop record, spontaneous and fun.

Caribou – Our Love
Another good Caribou record, this one very much post-Daphni, and with the jazz even more shorn than on Swim. It took me a little longer to really ‘get’ than some of his others, but “Silver” was an absolute highlight across the year from the moment I first heard it. I’d write more, but I’ve already written so much about Snaith’s music over the years that it feels redundant to do so; I can’t imagine a situation wherein he’d release a record I didn’t like. This was yet another record in 2014 which seemed to partially be about parenthood, at least on some tracks. Maybe a lot of records I’ve enjoyed over recent years have, and I’ve only just started to notice it this year. Or maybe I’m just projecting; records mean what they think you mean.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism
Another I played at record club – both record clubs, actually – and a fantastic, powerful, singular album that came at me completely unexpectedly.

Sharon Van Etten – Are We Here?
Possibly my favourite album of ‘songs’ this year, which isn’t to say that the music/arrangements aren’t good – they are, albeit not spectacular – but that this is all about the melodies and the words. Words aren’t something I normally pay particular specific attention to, but impressions eventually emerge if you listen to something often enough, and Are We Here? leaves a troubled impression, hinting at violence and severe emotional turmoil (just take in the brutal repetition of “Your Love Is Killing Me”). We found ourselves playing this an awful lot almost subconsciously, reaching for it by default, which is generally the sign of a grower and a laster. Van Etten’s previous records hadn’t really chimed with either of us massively, but this did, and strongly.

Embrace – Embrace
I wish they’d released this record a decade or more ago, when I had time and when they might have got some attention for it. The thing I listened to most this year, if only, at first, to clarify in my own mind that it existed. Their best album by some distance, it did all the things I think I wanted them to do when I was 18. Except now I am 35, and it’s too late; I use music differently to when I was 18 or 21 or even 25, and want different things.

Longer thoughts here, if you want them, and of course back in the archive of this blog.

St Vincent – St Vincent
A fabulously-constructed record, boundlessly interesting, technically brilliant (as far as a non-musician like me can tell, anyway), but one with which I’ve not really emotionally connected. I agree with everything Rob wrote here, but I still feel reservations.

Warpaint – Warpaint
Surprised and a little sad to see this fall away from end-of-year lists, as I thought it was great. Seeing them live revealed that these aren’t just wispy jams; they’re tightly-composed, albeit ethereal, songs. We listened to this a lot in the first third of the year, soaking in the beatific, laconic grooves.

Nisennenmondai – N
Jon played this to us at record club, and I was delighted, because I’d seen Nisennenmondai live at ATP in 2011 and they were fabulous. I procured a copy directly, and listened to it lots; it sat in that spot occupied by the likes of The Necks, and perhaps by the Dawn Of Midi record from last year – metronomic and transcendent.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Delighted to hear Hadreas broaden his sonic palette, and spectacularly so; I’d enjoyed his previous albums well enough, but I adored this. It was very weird hearing a song as virulent and spiteful (with good reason, I must add) as “Queen” used as occasional incidental music on TV idents for C4 / E4. In some ways this works as a more youthful, angry counterpart to the Owen Pallett record. The hesitant delicacy of his previous albums was torn asunder by the tumult of this. And it sounds phenomenal.

Swans – To Be Kind
I find it interesting how Swans have become, over the last four years or so, part of the critical establishment, their albums effortlessly garnering glowing reviews and gracing end-of-year lists. Is this a sign that Gira has mellowed and become more accessible, or that critical tastes have broadened in the post-internet era, or that critical circles have become more niche and echo-chamber-y? Or all of the above, and some other stu8ff, too?

To Be Kind – as well as having babies on the cover, adding to the overall theme of 2014 – felt groovier, swampier, bluesier, and less monolithic to me than The Seer, despite being another enormous, semi-impenetrable slab of a record. I didn’t play it a great deal – because when do you find time to fully engage with a 2-hour exercise in misanthropic voodoo heaviosity? – but when I did, oh boy. John Congleton’s production probably helped the grooviness and pseudo-accessibility.

D’Angelo – Black Messiah
An obviously recent acquitrement, it felt surreal to walk into a record shop and buy a CD copy of this only hours (albeit 72 or so) after it was announced. The record itself feels, on early impression, like a worthy and logical follow-up to Voodoo, in much the same way as m b v felt like it could have come 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. More concise, definitely, but no less enthrallingly groovy, if groovy doesn’t feel like a diminishing word to use for something like this.

Spoon – They Want My Soul
Just another Spoon record, which is fine, because Spoon are great, but this time that felt like it wasn’t enough, somehow. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time, but that’s never been a problem with Spoon before.

Edit. Maybe it’s the Dave Fridmann production; I’ve not liked his work since I went on my anti-compression crusade a decade ago (OTT distortion does my head in like OTT reverb), and Jim Eno’s production has always been one of the things I’ve liked best about Spoon (after, y’know, the songs and the arrangements). While Fridmann doesn’t produce the whole album, his tracks are frontloaded, which establishes the feel. That said, “Inside Out” is an absolute keeper.

Aphex Twin – Syro
Immaculately constructed – this thing sounds absolutely astonishing in terms of sound design, mixing, and clarity – but was it actually great? “Minipops” delighted me on first hearing, and the whole thing is enjoyable, but nothing shocks like his most outrageous previous best (“Windowlicker”), or casts a spell like “Avril 14”, or just transcends astonishingly like “Flim”.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that this was the best album of 2014. Frightening, isn’t it? Now imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that U2 made the best album of 2014. This is nowhere near as bad now, is it? It’s a good record, and we enjoyed it quite a lot, but it is just Dire Straits with elongated pseudo-kraut outros. (Those outros are my favourite bits, btw.)

GoGo Penguin – v2.0; Neil Cowley Trio – Touch and Flee
Putting these two together as they’re both piano-bass-drums trios and ostensibly ‘jazz’; except that GoGo Penguin aren’t really jazz at all, they’re much more informed by electronica and stuff like Satie than they are Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson. Which lead to some people comparing GoGo unfavourably with Cowley, who is lighter, jazzier, and more melodic, perhaps. But their intentions, as far as I can ascertain, are different, and so are their outcomes, even if they’re so close, to the outsider, as to be practically the same. Which is to say that I enjoyed them both, a lot, for what they are, not what the other is.

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Two token ventures towards hip hop, both alternative, both acclaimed; Shabazz Palaces woozing into almost ambient territory, while Run The Jewels hammered something far more physical. I’ve not listened to either enough to soak in the words (except that there’s a level of misogyny I’m not entirely comfortable with, even if it’s countered, on RTJ), but I probably enjoyed the physicality of RTJ more.

Objekt – Flatland
This was the last album I bought in 2014, a few days before Christmas, and as such I’ve not listened to it enough to really for an opinion of it. I’ve enjoyed the few spins it’s had, though, but not been struck by it sounding as alien or futuristic in its sound palette as some had suggested (ie. that where the Aphex Twin album sounded like an old Aphex Twin record, this sounded like something new).

School of Language – Old Fears
A lovely record that deserved far more attention, including from me; essentially a Field Music album (and sounding very much like Plumb at points) but with all the songs coming from just one Brewis brother (David) and musically inspired by Prince. Short and sweet, melodic, and beautifully produced.

Edit. Listening to this again and it really is beautifully done on every level; the tunes, arrangements, and mixing are all wonderful, warm, and full of depth. If I have any misgivings they might be about the lyrics; Old Fears is about all the misgivings, paranoias, and insecurities that get established at school and haunt you through adulthood, which could feel a bit #firstworldproblems coming from a white man in a developed country, but they’re handled with such grace and humility that Brewis gets away with it.

Scott Walker and Sunn o))) – Soused
Scott Walker and Sunn o))) are such a natural and obvious fit that I’m kind of baffled that this hadn’t already happened – we essentially envisioned it at Devon Record Club years ago when we played them back-to-back at a Halloween-themed evening. The reality is so predictable as to almost be redundant; I listened to this twice, thought “yeah, that does exactly as I expected”, and didn’t really return.

Liars – Mess
One fabulous tune – “Mess On A Mission” – and a lot of pretty good other stuff, but this wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped; and the pre-release marketing, especially their Instagram feed, got my hopes up. It continued aesthetically from WIXIW, which might have been a bad sign from the off; no two of their records have ever followed each other quite so obviously before. I played a chunk to our friend Debbie over the summer, and she was immediately propelled back to a world of early 80s Mute Records.

Hookworms – The Hum
A recent release, almost coinciding with the birth of our daughter, so frankly it’s not had enough attention.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
I prefer his songy-songs to his tracky-tracks, which can be a bit Fisher Price (‘my first techno’). “Heaven, How Long” is remarkable, one of my favourite songs of the year, and seeing him perform it live was a highlight, especially when I realised all the chaotic krauty synth wibbling during the extended climax was actually bass guitar. I’ll be very interested to see what he does next.

Karen O – Crush Songs; Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
These are both records that Em bought, and I’ve not paid massive attention to, to be honest. I’ve found diminishing returns from Jenny Lewis since Rabbit Fur Coat, which I thought was fabulous; Em informs me that the songs on this are probably her strongest since then.

Tune-Yards – Nicki Nack; The Notwist – Close To The Glass; The Antlers – Familiars
Really liked previous records by all of these, but didn’t bond with any of these current releases for whatever reason. There’s nothing wrong with any of them – The Notwist’s in particular I remember really enjoying for a week or two when it was first released (particularly the glorious pop of “Kong” and the MBV-aping “7 Hour Drive”) – they just didn’t really click. I’m pondering buying less records in 2015, in order to give them each more time.

Vermont – Vermont
Was desperate for something minimal and electronic, and saw mention of this somewhere, so I picked it up. Can’t remember a thing about it.

FKA Twigs – LP1; How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
I played FKA Twigs at record club, and enjoyed it for a few weeks but it didn’t stick with me for whatever reason.

Get The Blessing – Lope and Antilope
More jazz, this time rockier and with brass. This Bristol-based band have released several albums now, and I’ve enjoyed all of them that I’ve heard; they’ll never change the world, but that’s fine. Sometimes you just want music to be music.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
This is another record that just didn’t really click much, for whatever reason.

Goat – Commune
I’m not sure that Goat are doing anything that Voice Of The Seven Thunders didn’t do a few years ago, except wear masks and lie about who they are. It’s enjoyable, but they’re nowhere near as weird and earth shattering as hype for the first album lead me to hope they’d be. It’s just psyche grooves.

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I just don’t feel like I need another Elbow record. The tension’s gone, perhaps.


Bob, by Emma

Bob, by Emma

Bob could never have a door closed to him. Not a door between rooms, or a door to a cupboard, or a door to a lean-to, or a door to an airing cupboard. He had to have access to everywhere. The only doors that didn’t concern him were those that lead outside, which is fortunate, because we never wanted him to go outside; we’d chosen him especially because his breed wasn’t suited to going outdoors at all, and we lived back then in a flat up several flights of stairs by a busy main road. But that was fine; as long as all the internal doors could be opened to him, Bob was happy.

Bob has died, tragically and suddenly, a little less than three weeks ago. We were away on holiday in Sweden, not having the best time. In our final two days it got a whole lot worse.

On the day before we were due to fly back our cat-sitter phoned and said she was a little worried about Bob; he seemed lethargic. But his temperature was OK, and he seemed to be eating and drinking, so we thought that he just missed us, and was being grumpy, because he often could be grumpy when he didn’t get his own way. It seems insane to write that down or say it out loud; a grumpy cat who demands his own way and misses his ‘owners’, when cats are meant to be aloof.

We were wrong. Bob was suffering from an abdominal obstruction, which rapidly, overnight, caused him acute renal failure. This is disastrous if not caught early. The cat-sitter came back the next morning early because she was still worried, and she found him collapsed, in the cupboard under the stairs, where he had taken himself to die. She rushed him to the vet, and we got a phonecall moments after we got back into Stockholm.

We rushed to the airport; I cried at staff until they helped us find our bags and then we desperately tried to convince people to put us on an earlier flight. It couldn’t be done. We received another phonecall in the departure lounge, and then we wailed, and wailed and wailed, as Japanese tourists and Swedish businesspeople walked past, trying not to look at us. Neither of us have cried like that in many years; both of us have cried frequently since. Cried because Bob died; cried because we weren’t there for him; cried because we felt we had let him down; cried because we miss him. I miss him now. I’m crying now.

I’ve written about Bob before, and over the 2441 days we lived with him I have taken more photos of him and made more status updates on social media about him than I could even begin to imagine. He was the glue that bonded our early life living together as a couple; if, in brief moments, we were fed-up of each other, we were never, ever fed-up of Bob. Except maybe occasionally at 5am in summer, when the light outside would make him try and wake us up.

For a couple of years Bob would shun us for a few hours if we went away for the night, until his deep-seated need to sit on a lap and purr deeply would overwhelm him. As a result we holidayed seldom, and never for very long; we had separation anxiety about his separation anxiety, so much so that we bought him Cosmo as a companion (partly so we wouldn’t feel obligated to drive home at lunchtime most days to stroke him). Cosmo adored Bob, following him everywhere (often much to Bob’s chagrin), and it seemed very much as if Cosmo needed Bob’s attention and affection, and Bob needed ours. Now we need Cosmo’s, and Cosmo needs ours.

Some things Bob loved included: having his head gently held in the palm of your hand, your fingers strapped around the back of his face like a mask; rolling on rough surfaces, the harder the better – the tough concrete floor of the lean-to was his favourite; prawns; tuna; sitting on laps; hufflepuffing when he didn’t get his way; long, lazy weekend mornings in bed with my wife while I was out on my bike; pushing his way into every activity that humans in the house would embark upon, from cooking, to playing boardgames, to going to the toilet; pushing your face with his paws; rushing downstairs before you, hiding around a corner, and then pouncing out at you as you caught up.

He was the most singular, awkward, demanding, and loving creature I have ever had the pleasure to know. It is true that he was ‘only’ a cat, but he was also our companion, and he was my friend. I saw more of him, and spoke to him more often, than I have most people in my life, my wife excepted. We used to joke that “hey Bob” was the phrase that both of us had said most often in our lives. This will probably remain the case for quite some time.

I think of myself as quite stoical and self-contained, and in many ways I am. But the bonds that people have with animals, the trust they place in us and the love we give them back, has always and will always reduce me to mush; seeing a blind student near our house, with his guide-dog at his feet gazing down the road ready to let him know when the bus is coming, has had me welling-up in the street in more than one occasion. (The dog’s name is Ronan, and his owner graduated this week with a 2:1 in Law; I’m a little sad that I won’t see them around town anymore.)

Every so often now Em or I will have a little pang of realisation that we’ll never see Bob again; that he’ll never meow at us until we sit down and he can clamber on a lap again; that he’ll never purr himself to sleep again; that he’ll never get the huff with us because we tell him not to eat Cosmo’s food again. We’re crying less often when this happens now, and the guilt we felt for not being here when he was ill is easing; it is, as the vet and many others have said, just a shitty, awful set of circumstances that no one is to blame for. We have Cosmo to look after, and each other, and a baby on the way. There’s a lot of good to look forward to.

But I miss my grumpy, furry, purring friend.

British Airways – a customer service nightmare

So I emailed the CEO of British Airways and got a reply; it’s at the bottom of this post. I’ve also tried contacting Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert guy, and BBC’s Watchdog, because there seems to be some kind of media curtain preventing this from being talked about. I guess it’s World Cup and Wimbledon time, so who cares about people stranded on holiday without their luggage?

I’ve also heard about people in far worse situations than us: cyclists on biking holidays who’d paid extra to ship their bikes and been left without them; people who’ve flown to Bogota to go travelling round Colombia (surly an amazing place to be right now thanks to James Rodriguez and friends) who’ve missed internal connecting flights; people meant to be going to weddings left without expensive suits and dresses; and many more besides. The people affected by this are, sadly, legion, and they’re all massively upset with British Airways.

Onto the actual blogpost…
This was always likely to be our last holiday as a couple, before we became a family; it might have been booked a few months before we got pregnant, but we knew we were trying and there was a sense that this would be a last jaunt together. Growing up by the sea, with parents who weren’t big travelers, means holidays have always felt like the ultimate luxury to me. I didn’t go abroad until I was 25.

So I’m rubbish at holidays; Emma has to do all the arrangements, and I find it difficult to relax and switch off, which is hard on her because she loves travelling and unwinding. We’ve managed to go abroad only a handful of times in the 13 years we’ve been together: long weekends in Barcelona and Morzine; a short honeymoon in New York; a week each in Andalucia, Ibiza, and Sardinia.

This trip to Sweden wasn’t quite a city break or a rural retreat; we’d be half an hour outside Stockholm, in a cabin next to water, and we’d spend the days walking, running, bike riding, and reading, with perhaps one day in Stockholm itself. We knew the weather would be changeable, so we’d packed accordingly; jeans, jumpers, waterproofs and trainers as well as shorts, suncream, and t-shirts. But this flexible, bulky packing was OK, because we were flying with British Airways and thus could take a bag each.

Except that we were flying with British Airways, so they lost our bags. Because that’s what they do these days.

I’m hesitant to say our holiday has been ruined, because that sounds dramatic, but it has been ruined. Em is 20 weeks pregnant, and her entire wearable wardrobe is in her bag. Her running kit is in her bag, along with a legion of skincare products because her hormones are currently crazy and she needs more stuff than usual.

But it’s OK, because this is British Airways, and they’ve got a good reputation for customer service, haven’t they?

If ‘customer service’ starts and stops with a generous baggage allowance and a cheese and ham sandwich during your flight, then yes, they’ve got that locked down. If it stretches to solving your customers’ problems, that you have caused, then no. This holiday has been an absolute customer service nightmare for British Airways, and here’s why.

They let flights take off when they knew people’s luggage wasn’t aboard
If we’d known our bags weren’t aboard and that there was a problem, we’d not have flown, as simple as that. Emma’s pregnant, we were only going away for a few days, and we knew that Sweden in changeable conditions without your stuff would be difficult to deal with. It wouldn’t have been worth the hassle. But BA never communicated that our bags weren’t onboard. Apparently other people had seen baggage chaos at Terminal 5 due to conveyor belts not working, but we’d checked in quite early, at a working belt with no queues, and seen no problem at all.

Lack of proactive communication
To be fair, we knew about the mess before most people on our flight because Em got a text message saying one of our bags hadn’t travelled with us when we landed. Yay for contact details and mobile roaming. But that’s the ONLY contact we’ve had. No follow-up message to reassure us that steps are being taken, no apology, nothing. It’s easy to bulk send text messages; I’ve arranged it at work. So why aren’t BA doing it?

Not responding to emails
Obviously they’re going to be receiving a lot right now, but BA are a massive, multi-billion pound company with an international reputation; surely responding to customer queries and complaints via email in a timely manner – 24 hours, I’d say – is a key performance indicator? We emailed on Thursday evening as soon as we got to out destination. It’s now Saturday night, 48 hours later, and we’ve had no reply.

Useless telephone helpline
If you’re not answering emails, you can at least answer the phone. Can’t you? No; BA’s automated 0844 ‘choose your own adventure’ phone line is sifting people into a 45-minute queue. People who are on mobile phones, abroad. We literally can’t afford to sit and wait that long.

Sending the same generic responses to everyone tweeting at them
With no response via email and phone, we resorted to social media. And we got a response, but it was the same generic “we’re doing everything we can” response as everyone else in the same predicament got. Useful. (We’ve seen no one tweet at BA that they’re grateful to have got their bags back, by the way; and we’ve been checking.)

Failure to provide guidance as to what constitutes ‘essentials’
We’ve been referred to a generic webpage about ‘essentials’ that BA are happy to reimburse for. Except that they don’t details what ‘essentials’ are; toiletries and clothes, we assume, but what about data roaming and international call charges? And how much clothing? I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt on the plane, because it was 23 degrees in London the day we left. It’s 16 degrees in Sweden. We’ve got no washing machine in our cabin. The light jacket I’ve got with me isn’t waterproof. But at least I’ve got a jacket; Em’s was packed. The BA website gives no guidance about this, not even an upper limit on what they’ll reimburse.

Continued to let flights go before they’d adequately fixed the problem, thus compounding the issue for everyone already affected by increasing their own workload
This is hopefully pretty self-explanatory; not only are they adding more people to the problem, they’re making the problem more difficult to solve, and therefore worse for everyone, by doing so.

Supplied disinformation, or worse, no information at all
We were told our bags would be on flights later that day, and given times. But we’ve heard nothing since, and the online system just repeatedly says “tracing continues”. Are our bags at the airport in Stockholm? Are they in Heathrow? We have no idea, and presumably neither does anyone else.


Still no sign of bags or anything beyond a generic social media response. So I’ve emailed Keith Williams (, the CEO of British Airways, because maybe he’ll reply more willingly than his staff. This is what I’ve said:

Dear Mr Williams,

Due to yet another baggage cock-up at Terminal 5, my wife and I have been left without our bags for several days, which has ruined our holiday. As no one at your company appears to be responding to emails, giving useful information via social media, or sorting out the 45-minute queue on your customer service ‘help’ line (that, as we’re abroad on mobile phones, we’re loathe to sit and pay for), I thought I’d email you.

Details of the complete failure of your organisation’s customer service can be found here:

Several hundred people have already read this. I’m doing my best to make that several thousand; not just for my wife and I, but for everyone else who has been left feeling let down and neglected by your organisation. As CEO it is your responsibility to set the ethos, values, and spirit of British Airways. Right now I feel quite strongly that you have failed at this.

Yours frustratedly,

Nick Southall

I got a reply from the “chairman’s office” at BA (I’m skeptical; it reads like bog-standard customer service text). This is it:

“Dear Mr Southall,

Thank you for your e-mail to Keith regarding the baggage system failures on
the 26th June, as part of his Executive correspondence team he has asked me
to respond on his behalf.

Please accept my apologies for the inconvenience the delay to you baggage
is causing. The baggage team, with help from our engineers and cargo
handlers, are doing all they can to reflight disrupted bags as soon as
possible. The baggage system is currently running at normal capacity to
manage today’s flights but we are still unable to use Terminal 5’s systems
in the way we would like to speed up the repatriation process and are
having to invoke a manual process to reload disrupted bags and this is
slower than using the automated system. Unfortunately this means the
tracking system (World Tracer) takes longer to update customer baggage
information. Heathrow Airport continue to work with the IT engineers to
fully restore the automated system.

We are prioritising bags in order of age and by the next available flight.
Once your bag has been reallocated a flight the details should appear on
World Tracer. However, due to the manual processing, some bags are being
delivered without World Tracer updating. These bags are being loaded
directly onto flight containers and World Tracer will be updated once they
reach Stockholm. You can check World Tracer via this link with the baggage
reference you have been provided with

Should you need to purchase essential items during your trip please do so.
To ensure we can process your claim as quickly as possible, please keep all
receipts and submit them as directed on our baggage compensation claim form
where we will seek to reimburse you as quickly as possible. Please use this
link to submit your claim:

I appreciate you feel our handling of this situation has fallen short of
your expectations. I can assure you we are working continuously to reunite
our customers with their bags.

Yours sincerely,

Paul Kemp
Chairman’s Office Executive”

There is very little in there which isn’t just repeating information we’ve already found inadequate on BA’s website.

On bicycles

I can still remember the first time I cycled from Dawlish to Exeter. I was 22, and, like most feats of vague idiocy at that age, it was inspired by a girl. I’d met her a week or two earlier, and she worked in a record shop in Exeter. The bike was a red mountain bike that I’d bought for £150 as a student so I could get from campus to campus more easily. The ride to Exeter, 13 miles each way, seemed enormous and insurmountable and insane. I’d never done it before and didn’t know where to go; I just had a vague inkling that you could get all the way up a trail alongside the river Exe. I didn’t even know Exeter well enough back then to know how to get from the river to the city centre. The things we do for girls we’ve just met, eh?

I think the ride took me about two hours each way, which makes me laugh these days; I’ve hammered down the main road to Dawlish in about 45 minutes. But back then, on that sunny Saturday, it felt like the most amazing adventure, venturing into uncharted territory both literally and emotionally. Crazily, although it was the start of a relationship – thirteen years later we’re married, own a home together and are expecting our first child – it wasn’t the start of a hobby; the bike went in the garage not long after and rusted away for years. It wasn’t until we lived in Exeter and got married, nine years hence, that I got a new bike and was slowly, surely, bitten by the bug.

On Sunday afternoon we were driving to Dawlish and passed, down Barrack Road, a gang (for want of a better word) of boys – teenagers, perhaps 15 or 16 – out on their bikes together. Four on road bikes of various kinds – an old steel racer, a tourer, a modern compact alloy frame, etc – and one on a mountain bike. No helmets, no lycra, no cleats; just jeans and trainers and t-shirts and a backpack each, heading out on the first day of summer for an adventure, weaving across each others’ paths, laughing, talking, pedalling like mad for a split second and then freewheeling downhill. They looked like they were having fun, and I was far more jealous of them than of any Sunday morning peloton I’ve seen hammering the tarmac to Tiverton or down the Teign Valley.

It’s that sense of freedom, and adventure, and excitement, that I really love about cycling; it’s why I feel far more inspired by John Prolly’s Instagram feed than by the Tour de France. It’s why, no matter how much I love my racing bike, I love my steel cross bike more, even after only two and a bit weeks. It just feels like a different kind of riding; partly because ramping off a kerb or swerving across a grass verge or heading across a gravel trail isn’t an issue at all, but more because… it just makes me want to explore, to turn down roads I’d otherwise ride past, and the knowledge that I can makes me approach riding differently.

So this summer my priority isn’t hitting personal bests, or increasing mileage month-on-month; it’s recapturing that feeling I got when I rode to Exeter to see Emma all those years ago, about getting a hint of that euphoria those boys were heading for last Sunday as they freewheeled down the road towards wherever it was they ended up. About enjoyment.


Embrace_-_EmbraceSo what does it actually sound like?

A subdued synthesizer oscillation forms the basis for an understated, slightly unsettling verse; this is how the album opens; it is not how previous Embrace albums have opened. This is “Protection”. Danny is restrained, his voice a slightly richer tenor than before, perhaps. It’s vaguely threatening, ominous. Something that might be guitar strings scrapes weirdly out wide in the mix, and a house-y drumbeat and treble-y synthesizer arpeggio flesh out the sound. Two minutes in, this verse suddenly explodes into a briefly enormous chorus, detonated by a live snare and a sudden surge of guitars that seems to swell impossibly. It collapses again to nothing but bass and those scraping strings.

Phenomenologically, the arrangement and mix are extremely impressive; the electronic elements don’t feel tacked-on, they feel intrinsic; dare I say ‘authentic’? That’s a horrible, loaded word that seldom gets used for anything but coercion, but the way that synthesizer pulse moves and reverberates through the soundstage, given space and allowed to breathe, makes it become substance rather than signpost, makes it feel honest and committed and real, somehow. Just the way that chorus really does surge, buoyed up on a mammoth bassline and propelled by layers of synth chords at high altitude, reeks of attention to detail. Someone really cared about how this album sounds. And it says exactly who on the sleeve; he produced, recorded, and mixed it, as well as writing the songs.

As a result there are a thousand details in the mix, all the way through the album, that will take you an age to notice, and keep you coming back and listening for more: the way the chorus of “Refugees” seems to be backed by an infinitely distant children’s choir; the layers of burbling synth behind the middle eight of “Follow You Home”; the entirely new melody, played out on distant bells or some such, buried in the decaying notes closing “I Run”; the universes of melody being destroyed at the end of “…Thief…”.

There are aesthetic shifts here, for certain. New Order, and dance music in general, are an overt influence feeding into things throughout the record; synthesizers, drum machines, dance floor rhythms, and occasionally that high, melodic bass that drives songs in a different way. Embrace always talked about these influences but, outside of a couple of remixes and some b-sides, they were seldom heard. Now they’re right here, front and centre, starting an album they’ve seen fit to name Embrace, and run right through the heart of it.

Embrace have been famously schizophrenic over the years, running an aesthetic gamut from orchestral grandeur to shoegazing thuggery to kazoo-led homilies via a thousand other things; their first three albums, in particular, betray a massive and diverse love of music that spans the horizons from funk to hardcore to soul to pop to metal to dance and beyond, all underpinned by a windswept, northern songcraft and bare-faced emotionalism that’s always been resolutely uncool. This scope has threatened to be their undoing in some ways.

Finally, two decades in, after eight years in a literal wilderness with no label, no A&R, and practically no contact with the outside world, it feels almost as if they’ve realised who they are, and, in their own words, come full-circle to the band they were before they were signed, before the record industry got hold of them and ran them through the mincer over and over again. (And oh boy, did they get run through the mincer; so many expectations, so many manipulations, people placing bets on them, the band trying to please everyone and forgetting themselves.)

“In The End” is a glorious pop song, energised and direct, with another fantastic, surging chorus and a gamut of thrilling, dynamic pauses and rushes in all the right places. A really powerful riff to start and then restless drums and a big, melodic, Hooky bassline that runs through everything else. Synth chaos painted over the top of the chorus itself. A great, exciting drop-out to just bass before the final furlong demonstrates the dynamic at play, the rise and fall, stop and start; yes, it’s manipulative, but you don’t get on a fairground ride to sit still, do you?

The chorus comes from an ancient, unreleased version of “Too Many Times”; as documented elsewhere, I thought it was the best chorus they’d written, and basically felt cheated for a decade that they’d never done anything with it. It’s a little frustrating that almost literally no one else in the world can ever know the feeling I experienced when I first heard it explode out of this song, completely unexpected. It was bizarre. Over the intervening years I’d forgotten what this band and their music can mean to me, and all of a sudden everything, all the hopes, dreams, memories, experiences and emotions came back in one big rush.

I’ve talked about “Refugees” elsewhere; in some ways it’s Embrace’s “Made Of Stone”. By that I don’t mean that it sounds like that song at all, though; rather it’s about a similar feeling and atmosphere. If “Made Of Stone” was “making a wish and watching it happen” then “Refugees” is wanting to make a wish and being afraid it won’t happen; both songs are about wanting something different, something more, something better, but one comes from a gang of young guys wanting to escape where they grew up and the other comes from a someone trying to raise kids in a country he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. Perhaps. (Because I have a theory that all of Rik’s songs are actually about his family and/or his band.) After the restless pace of “In The End”, “Refugees” feels like a pause for rumination, but it’s still loaded with dramatics and melody and intensity.

“I Run” is a slower song; you could call it a ballad if you wanted, but the swirling guitars and keys over the chorus, the muscular, cavernous bass driving the verse, the sheer force of emotion when Danny sings “because everything I ever do is wrong”, makes that seem like a very small word for something so emotionally big. And this is unashamedly massive, whilst still retaining a degree of intimacy somehow; again, that’s largely down to the way things are mixed. There’s incredible emotional intensity as the singer lays bare a lot of inner secrets, takes down some protective walls and confesses, apologises, and promises to do better.

Melodically it’s incredibly strong, piling line-upon-line as bridges and choruses change places. Emotionally, though, it’s even stronger; I’ve not always been a fan of these kinds of songs in the past, but something about this feels more honest, more painful, than they ever have before. When Danny hits the notes that build to his confession about doing wrong, it smacks me in my chest the way he’s been trying to do for decades. And when he gives up and just screams “no, no more” towards the end… Musically, the contours of the song rise and fall, find space to ramp up the intensity in the second chorus when others might have had nowhere to go, and Danny matches it move for move.

The chirpy “oh-ohs” and fidgety guitar riff of “Follow You Home” initially hide what’s actually quite a creepy sentiment; pop as Trojan horse for something a little darker. To me the stalking being done here isn’t necessarily of a romantic target so much as it’s of a creative muse; an audience or fanbase, perhaps, or a moment of musical inspiration. An illustration of the trepidation the band must have felt; what if no one cared anymore? “I wrote you letters / sang you songs / but nothing works on you no more” could easily be addressed to the band’s fans. When it takes eight years (8 years!) to produce an album, the struggle to make it must inform what it’s about thematically.

If I’m brutal, this is the song I’m least excited about on the record; that it’s still as catchy as hell, and gifted with an excellent middle eight and denouement that I think are fabulous, says a lot about the level of quality throughout the album. Insert something here if you like about poor singles choices over the years – “New Adam New Eve” should have been a single; “Glorious Day” and “I Can’t Come Down” never should have – but I don’t think this is a poor choice as a single. That said, it’ll be criminal if the next track isn’t a single.

I always wanted Embrace to work with a dance producer, because I had a feeling that it would end up sounding like “Quarters”, which is aesthetically, if not structurally, pretty much straight-ahead dance music; parts of it sound like nothing so much as The Knife, even while the guitars chime like something from The Unforgettable Fire. Compositionally it’s still about songwriting, though, rather than dancefloor build and release (although the component parts do that quite nicely too, actually); there’s a crazy bridge that goes all Justin Timberlake / Michael Jackson / Prince as Rik squeezes himself into a bizarre falsetto.

Meanwhile, ‘insouciant house diva’ as a vocal style suits Danny surprisingly well; there’s a certain semi-medicated quality to his vocals through the verses that really suits the sonic context. The chorus feels like it should soundtrack a scene in a film where the protagonist is out of it in an underground rave, lost and paranoid and chemically affected. Some people will feel like this is an ‘off-brand’ move, but the Perfecto remix of “One Big Family” was one of the first things Embrace ever released, and Danny used to bang on about how Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were the only bands releasing exciting music in the country. To me it was always inevitable that they’d go in this direction; I’m just baffled it took so long.

Or am I just imagining this, because I want them to sound like that? I played “Quarters” to a friend, apros of nothing, with no warning or context regarding who it was; the first response was “this is really good”. I revealed who it was. “Fucking hell” was the second response, “it’s not a remix?”. It isn’t. There is a definite ‘rock band go dance/electronic’, Achtung Baby / Reflektor etc etc (delete as appropriate) vibe happening here, but this seems more overt; less live-band-plays-disco than lone-guy-with-drum-machine-and-laptop makes a dance track. Except there is a live band here – just not all the time; the two merge into one another. Like I said, this was always meant to be in their DNA.

The riff that opens and evolves through “At Once” reminds me of the dappled sunlight guitar that ushers in “New Grass” on Laughing Stock by Talk Talk; it has that quasi-improvised feel, very beautiful and very fragile, always moving slightly out of pattern and off-center. Like a lot of the album, lyrically it could be about a relationship, or (more likely?) it could be about being a band, making this album – “we can build it brick by brick” – before the chorus and coda take things in a slightly different direction; they could easily be read as a (pretty excoriating) description of clinical depression. I really love the brevity here, especially of the coda; it adds a modesty and intimacy to the song that lends it emotional heft just as much as the way the bridge into the second chorus piles up on top of itself.

“At Once” is the closest thing to a moment of respite or calm here; there are no palette cleansers, no interludes or opportunities for quiet contemplation. But even this moment of self-reflection is leavened with a certain degree of melodrama, which comes from the strength of the tune and the conviction of the delivery. Might it have been ‘better’, somehow, if they’d taken the delicacy of its opening and let it drift, like “Now You’re Nobody” did all those years ago? It certainly would have been different, but I’m very happy with how it is.

As an aside, the start of “New Grass” by Talk Talk is one of my favourite things ever, because it’s incredible delicacy and beauty follows 10-minutes of emotional and sonic tumult, and chaos, and confusion (called “Taphead”). Very few people who’ve taken inspiration from those late Talk Talk albums have captured this properly; they tend to facsimile the beautiful bit without the tumult. The problem is that, as in life, the downs contextualise the ups; the chaos makes the beauty even more wonderful; just listen to Sunbather by Deafheaven. Those first two Embrace EPs juxtaposed the tumult and the beauty very well, of course. Sandwiched where it is, “At Once” seems to understand that dynamic too.

And so onto “Self Attack Mechanism”. I’ve basically been waiting seventeen years for Embrace to produce stuff like this and “Quarters”. Punishing, angry, technological, forward-thinking, still imbued with melody and structure and, importantly, emotion. Again, this is where, in my imagination, they were always meant to end up. “Contender” pointed towards this; electronic drums and slashing guitars; massive, grinding bass; big wafts of synth as the tune pauses; self-lacerating lyrics (“it’s me who’s alone with no sense of direction / and it’s me who’s a fool running scared of the message”). Extraordinarily exciting.

And the sound again, that mixing. At one point in “Self Attack Mechanism” something strange happens and it feels as if the sound is coming from behind you somehow (assuming your speakers are positioned properly, that is). The whole album sounds better and better the more you turn it up and up, the bass filling out and thumping you, the intricacies of the sound enveloping you and overwhelming you; it coaxes you towards the volume knob until you’re making the entire house pulse. Which is the way it should be. It’s addictive.

Lyrically Danny has said explicitly that this is about post-traumatic stress disorder, which he suffered with, by all accounts quite horrifically, in his early 20s; it’s pretty unforgiving. It also borrows a line from an ancient, never-officially-released Embrace tune called “Say It With Bombs”; specifically the bit about “the birds eat the bees”. Which is weird and cyclical and kind of awesome in terms of contributing to the strange, eternal, internal narrative of this band, and adds weight to the suggestion that they’ve come full-circle.

I’m not sure what to say about “The Devil Looks After His Own”, because it’s just a really good, bitter pop song, loaded with tune and given a fabulous arrangement. I can’t really ascribe any semiotic or narrative analysis to it, it doesn’t change the paradigm of the band in the way “Protection”, “Quarters”, or “Self Attack Mechanism” do, it doesn’t feel like a ‘significant’ moment in their career; it’s just a great song, done incredibly well. Which is amazingly refreshing, and, in the midst of a paradigm-shifting album, probably a blessed relief.

Danny spits (almost literally at points; I’ve never heard him sound quite so angry as he does towards the end) fantastic lyrical epithets all over the place, about how “the winner of the rat race is still a rat”, and “the web you weave unravels itself”; if it’s about anything specific, it might be the way the band have been treated over the years, the plans people hatched for them, and how they’ve somehow made it through the bullshit; but of course, like any song, it’s about what you, the listener, interpret it as being about. There’s something metronomic in the triangulated drums and the mechanical, chugging rhythm guitar (which could almost be a bit early-PJ Harvey, another pre-record-deal influence). It’s obviously Embrace but I can’t find an analogue for it elsewhere in their discography; this pleases me.

Across the entire record everything feels ramped-up a notch (or several) musically; arrangements feel more creative across the board, either subtly (the guitar in “At Once”) or radically so (all of “Quarters”). Mike and Steve in particular seem almost like a different rhythm section; the way the drums evolve through “Refugees” and the way the bass shifts across “In The End” are totally unlike anything they’ve played before. Some might find it initially difficult to tell how Mickey’s contribution has altered, because the sound palette he’s working with is so radically different to before, but the synthesizer craziness he’s responsible for is by far the most seismic change on show. It’s not that Embrace have made a synth pop record; it’s that they’ve practically retooled their entire sonic armory, from individual timbres to mixing techniques to the thrillingly dynamic approach to mastering, while keeping hold of the emotional territory and songwriting focus they’ve always held dear.

I like to think I can second-guess what an Embrace song will sound like before I’ve heard it, based on running time, title, and sequencing; “this is a delicate moment”; “this is a rocker”; “this is an experiment”. Sometimes I’m right; probably less often than I’d like to think, though. I was sort of both very right and very wrong with the last track here. Structurally “A Thief On My Island” is similar to “Out Of Nothing”, but it smashes it in the brutality and dynamics stakes. I’d argue that it’s melodically richer and more personal lyrically, too; a lot of the lyrics across the album repeat themes and ideas and motifs from earlier in their career, as if things have been tiptoed around before and are now being fully realised and admitted to.

At one point during the creation process for this record Danny or Rik posted something, somewhere, about being influenced by dubstep, which seemed like a red herring or misdirection or else some horrific attempt at being contemporary; with hindsight the second half of this song is probably the result of that, but it’s not about producing a track that people can (not) dance to at a dubstep night somewhere in Bristol – it’s about saying “here is a sound; what can we do with it to our own ends?” And the answer to that question is ‘techno Swans’. Halfway through listening to “…Thief…” for the first time I thought to myself “well, it’s pretty intense and dramatic, but it’s not exactly Swans, is it?” And then, for the final three minutes, it went techno Swans; a bludgeoning, incredibly deep, repeated electronic noise-chord hammered over and over again like an obscene tectonic movement shaking buildings apart. Or at least I think it did; I don’t quite trust myself with this band, with being able to discern between what’s actually happening and what I want to happen. Many listens in, in many contexts, I think the two are very close.

This album has finally calcified what I always thought Embrace could be; what they ought to be. Some people still won’t get it, and that’s fine. Their music doesn’t usually lend itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’ the way that some acts do, but I’ve never heard Sonic Youth, say, or any ‘noise’ act, take something so bludgeoning and use it to emotional ends the way Embrace do at the end of “…Thief…” or, a decade ago, “Out Of Nothing”; to insert that chaos, both sonic and emotional, into a pop song. And pop songs is what they do – bold melodies, big hooks, enormous choruses, all those early brass fanfares and ba-ba-ba backing vocals, all that communality. They’ve always been unashamedly populist.

Very early on Embrace were accused of having a Thatcherite work ethic, as if working hard to produce something of quality for consumption by anyone and everyone wasn’t actually a socialist work ethic, as if the communal nature of their music wasn’t socialist through and through, as if Danny hadn’t worked on a building site with his dad while he was writing the songs that would form their debut album, as if they weren’t from mill towns in Yorkshire that Thatcher tried to destroy. Singing to yourself might be beautiful and rewarding but it’s also kind of selfish in many ways, and shared emotional experiences are unbelievably profound; more and more as I get older I’m finding myself overwhelmed by large crowds of people and shared cultural experiences – the Olympics, public demonstrations against the government – and I’m naturally exclusionary by instinct in many ways. To me, Embrace’s music somehow, sometimes captures that feeling and ties it to something that’s also incredibly isolating, far more so than any of the people who’ve emerged in their wake and (in some ways) eclipsed them. I think a big part of this is because the man delivering the words atop most of these emotions is a weirdo hiding in plain sight; simultaneously garrulous and uncomfortably intense.

It’s about sublimation within a crowd, loss of sense of self whilst, at the very same time, feeling something deeply personal and emotional. It’s that eternal pang of pop music, or rock music, or dance music, or soul music, or whatever you want to call it; that thrill of movement and emotion and connection and alienation all at once, joy at sadness and sadness at joy; recalling memories that aren’t actually yours because someone else can channel them, somehow, right into you. We don’t have a word for it. It’s liking a piece of music, or art, or culture, or whatever, not because it says anything about you, but because it does something to you, whether you like it or not. And I like this a lot.