Seriously. Way back when – pre-“Retread” being written – Embrace were a miserable, moping, typically northern post-punk band, of the type that’s seemingly been back in fashion since Interpol et al repopularised wearing black and singing doomily a dozen years ago or more. By the mid-90s, though, Embrace had had a soul music epiphany, become communicative, communal, painted the dark edges into the corners and left those influences behind somewhere.
If you don’t believe me, look up an ancient demo they recorded in 1993, which contains three songs – “Say It With Bombs”, “Overflowing”, and “Sooner Than You Think” – that owe more than a little debt to the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division, and The Chameleons. And then listen to this new EP, which is both the past and future of the band, tied together to make the present.
“Refugees” itself is so comically dynamic that they had to do a second master of it for radio, TV, and YouTube; the opening drum machine disquietingly distant, so as to make the sudden rush into the chorus all the more affecting. Understandably this pleases me no end. There’s been some chatter about Rik’s vocals in the first verse, but that’s not Autotune, as far as my ears can tell; it’s an effect – as much performative as electronic – applied for aesthetic reasons, to create a deliberate mood – specifically one of alienation and fantasy. The fact that it masks who the song is by initially is an added bonus, adding to the sense of weird familiarity later on when Danny comes to the microphone.
“Refugees” is about escape: from a town; a culture; a political mood that’s infecting an entire country. It’s about feeling like you don’t belong, and finding a way to extricate yourself. Or at least it is while Rik’s singing; when Danny becomes the calm centre of proceedings during the final middle-eight and electronic breakdown, the song changes, and becomes about Embrace’s return from the wilderness – “when you settled for less than I promised you / knowing that all of our barrels were scraped” acting as some kind of apology to fans who were left bewildered when the band just disappeared after that last tour and single. Which is why this was the perfect choice as comeback – as well as being a great tune, it builds a meta-narrative, comments upon the bands return.
Even more than the lyrics, though, the sound of “Refugees” is about escape. From streaming the more compressed version with the video I was worried it might just be identikit indie-electro that the likes of Friendly Fires and Delphic have pushed over the last few years, but the bones of the song beneath the aesthetic have Embrace’s DNA run straight through it – the surging chorus, the middle eight that takes the tune somewhere different.
And that arrangement and instrumentation, especially that distant drum machine and the middle-eight, with its pizzicato synth-string stabs, distorted vocals, glitchy details and swirling layers, are as much an epiphany as “Hooligan” was all those years ago; the realization that you can change your voice and still be true to your essence. There’s a real care in the way elements are mixed and layered together to create a rich, almost synaesthetic experience, which says to me that this isn’t a token gesture or desperate reaching for something ‘new’; it’s something genuine and deliberate. It’s that breakdown, and the vocal from Danny that follows, that makes the song complete, that makes it feel like both a homecoming and a breaching of new ground.
And so those other three songs, which despite being new, somehow seem to represent that past. Danny has said that it feels as if the band have come full-circle back to their original set of influences – Echo & The Bunnymen, New Order, early U2 – and this is where it most sounds like it.
“Chameleon” definitely has something dark, faintly goth-y and 80s about it, in the stabbing, ominous strings and disquieting electronic murmurations and faintly sneered, self-lacerating chorus. You could read the lyric “I will crowbar all I’m worth” as perhaps referencing back to “Blind” and “Dry Kids”; Danny’s always played with repeating lyrics from song to song. The bass and drums, when they arrive, are harsh and physical, jabbing you in the gut and taking the song up a notch or two of drama than was suggested by the subdued opening. The bass, in particular, is like gunshots.
Like “Refugees”, “Decades” is also about escape. Or more accurately, about being imprisoned, and unable to escape. Get a load of the insistent, rumbling bass, the lyrics about being “boarded up from the outside”, “four to a cell”, and the spectral, post-punky guitar tone; not ‘angular’ but ghostly, the tone that lead indirectly from post punk to shoegaze (and remember that a stated aim way back when was to be “My Bloody Valentine with an orchestra”). It might be about confinement paranoia, a result of locking yourself in a studio for years on end and bloodymindedly refusing to leave until you’ve got to a certain, almost indefinable place. The opening riff is great, but it’s the glorious, swirling, surging chorus that keeps me coming back; even though it’s about feeling trapped it’s somehow euphoric.
Musically it’s actually very close to those ancient demos from 1993 in some ways, but without quite being a heritage reconstruction, either of that period in the band’s career or the influences that bled so strongly through what they were doing back then (when Danny really was singing a lot like Ian McCulloch). Twenty years later, despite the ground they’ve covered – and from “One Big Family” to “Hooligan” to “Satellites” to “Ashes” to “A Thief On My Island” it’s a lot of ground – they have their own character and essence, and that essence is identifiable even if the tools they use to express it vary. So it might sound a little like The Mission or The Chameleons, but mostly it sounds like Embrace.
“Bullets” completes the trio of non-album tracks on the EP in hushed, faintly sinister tones; the lyric could be read as being lovely or creepy depending on your point of view. It’s the most delicate of the new songs, but still retains a degree of physicality, knuckles beneath the sentiment. To be honest, I’m not that excited with these b-sides the way I have been with previous crops. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, mind; they’re three very strong songs, I like them a lot, and would count them without hesitation amongst the best b-sides this band has ever done. It’s just that I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s coming, and I’m far more excited about that.