This band, they come around like a comet.
A couple of years ago I’d resigned myself to the fact that Embrace would never put out another record, and I was OK with that. I’d invested a lot in this band over the years – as well as time, money, and words I poured an almost obscene amount of hope and idealism into them – and I was OK that the adventure, which had some ups and downs like all adventures, had reached its denouement, and that there wasn’t really anything left worth saying or doing. Was there?
Evidently Embrace have spent the last eight years feeling like they had unfinished business. In fact, creatively they seem more fired up than ever. Like they’ve got something left to prove. Things unsaid, unexplained. Bad decisions that need exorcising from their consciences, from our memories.
Years ago Danny McNamara expressed the fear that he felt emotions less deeply than other people. Given that his band are known for being overtly emotional, this seems nuts. Embrace are about wearing your heart on your sleeve, even if it’s not appropriate, or sophisticated, or cool. Or the right heart. Or the right sleeve.
Their last album, although a commercial success, seemed to knock a degree of enthusiasm out of them; they didn’t seem happy with the process that created it or the end product, and although they got to play arenas and were within spitting distance of a number one single, it seemed like a place they weren’t entirely comfortable with. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.
Embrace have always been at their best when they’ve retreated, like a wounded bear, and taken time and taken stock, before coming back refreshed and reinvigorated. Their best albums – their second, fourth, and now their sixth – all follow increasingly long lay-offs during which time they went silent; eighteen months, three and a half years, eight years. The third and fifth albums both tried to build on momentum and follow swiftly on from what came before, and neither worked. I don’t believe in creativity being some magical, fleeting thing; there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that yes, you can, if not force it, then charm it, coerce it, manage it, and harness it. But people work in different ways and that approach simply doesn’t suit some. Some people need to retreat. Some things take some time.
They’ve been away longer than The Beatles’ entire career lasted. What does it mean that they’ve taken this long to make a record; does it suggest that something is wrong? I can’t say; maybe something was. Or maybe life got in the way. I can think of plenty of other people who’ve taken as long, and longer, and come back as strong as they ever were – Portishead, Kate Bush, Scott Walker, Bark Psychosis – and in each case that’s fine. As far as I can tell, and I’m an unreliable narrator when it comes to this band, Rik’s basically spent eight years teaching himself how to make an album better than anything they’ve done before. It’s worked.
If nothing else, this prolonged absence proves that they’re in this for the right reasons (whatever they are); they’ve rolled with the punches, ridden out scenes and trends and hype and critical brickbats and come back, again and again, with music. They don’t know how to do anything else. They never moved to London or became a part of the machine, didn’t get programs on 6music or jobs in A&R or start their own record labels or fashion companies or go into acting or anything else. It seems that all they ever gave a shit about was making music and playing it to people. (It baffles and upsets me to this day that some people seem to despise them.)
My musical taste and sense of identity are less passionately interwoven now than they were when I was younger. Having this band, formerly such a strong part of my musical/identity intersection, one that’s given great pleasure and not inconsiderable disappointment, suddenly land back in my life, and in many ways finally be and do many of the things I hoped they would be and do half a lifetime ago, is difficult to deal with, to reconcile to, to understand.
Because seventeen years ago (half my lifetime, now) I set up an array of hopes and expectations for this band, things I wanted them to achieve – things that they seemed to promise, in the way that bands sometimes do – which were unrealistic, to say the least (and which could probably form the basis of a whole article about bands as brands, and the cognitive dissonance that occurs when fans perceive a band to have done something “off brand”). So I struggled with this record at first. Struggled with it quite a bit. There’s a lovely, if slightly strange, twitter account called A Single Bear, which tweeted this the other week: “How can I know what I think I have experienced is truly what I have experienced and not just what I wanted to experience?” Which is a sort of epistemological problem, at root. It’s also exactly how I felt about this record for about the first dozen listens.
The very first listen, about a month ago now, was about phenomenological confirmation: yes, this thing really exists; yes, it sounds really good; no, it doesn’t seem to have any glaring issues. Subsequent listens have been about slowly clarifying and piecing together what’s actually happening. I’ve held off from saying anything about it until I’ve been reasonably sure that it is what it is, and not what I want it to be (and also until I know that copies are out there for the press, so conversation can begin). As far as I can tell (and again, I am an unreliable narrator), what it is and what I want it to be are pretty close.
So what the hell is it actually like? To frame it reductively in the context of previous works, I might say it’s got the songs and drive and passion of their fourth, but it’s also got the creativity and energy and range of their second. But it’s not really like either of those two, or any of the others. Or maybe it’s like the last one, except completely without compromise in quality or approach. Or maybe it’s like I dreamed the first one would be all those years ago?
What’s definitely, defiantly still there is the emotional punch that defines this band. They’ve never been able to do cool detachment or minimalism. The thing that makes people love them is the way that, at their best, their songs punch you in the gut. Some people don’t get that, don’t like it, distrust emotional reactions. That’s OK; different things affect different people in different ways.
Ten years ago they released a b-side called “Too Many Times”, which was a roiling, raging thing with multiple drum kits and a bit of Fugazi’s DNA and a nod towards the tumbling rhythms and layers of Caribou (or Manitoba, as he was known then) in the intro. It was, and still is, one of my favourite things they’ve released, and it’s always saddened and frustrated me that the songs like this, the ones dripping with creativity as well as tune, weren’t necessarily the ones that other people got to hear, that they were hidden away.
But this time out they’ve synergised those creative elements completely with the songs. So this time we have big tunes that are catchy as hell and pack a huge emotional punch and, on top of that, they’re composed of brilliant mad shit; dark disco, nasty tech-rock wigouts, some kind of dubstep apocalypse thing at one point. A lot of drum machines, a lot of slashing guitars, a lot of synth chaos. It starts, confusingly, pleasingly, with a really addictive, satisfying electric pulse and house-y drum (machine) beat. None of this should actually be much of a surprise if you’ve paid attention over the years, and it feels entirely organic and natural, like they’ve been doing it for years; if you consider how long they’ve been making this record, they probably have. And there are plenty of pointers from earlier in their career; remixes, b-sides, uncomfortable mutterings in codas, pre-“Retread” descriptions of the band as Joy Division-esque.
Anyway, many years ago I had the pleasure of hearing an unreleased, extended version of “Too Many Times” which never saw the light of day. This extended version was identical but for a coda; an additional, unexpected key change and a whole extra, different chorus that surged in from nowhere and took the song in a brand new, wonderful direction. I thought it was probably the best chorus they’d written, and when it was edited out of the version released on the b-side of “Gravity” I was gutted. “We’re saving it” was the excuse; this wasn’t the right context, it needed a different song to make the most of it. I could kind of see what they meant. So I waited. But it didn’t end up on the next album or on any of the b-sides. And then Embrace vanished, and years went by, and I kind of assumed this secret chorus was lost to the ether, never to be heard by anyone, and I forgot about it. There are other missing songs like this that few people have heard; one that Aimee Mann was meant to record; one about being effortless; one recorded for the greatest hits compilation, which they made a video for but that got buried for various reasons. I’m sure every band has them.
The first time I played this new record, that brilliant, secret chorus suddenly burst out of the middle of the second song, and my tear ducts exploded. It was the weirdest sensation; instant familiarity, a surge of absolutely unexpected emotion that brought back feelings from a different time, a different life, but which also felt brand new. It was uncanny and euphoric at the same time. It knocked me for six. It’s amazing. And it’s not the thing I’m most excited about on this record. I’m excited about all of it, even after a lot of listens.
So. There are some big, glorious pop songs on this record, but they’re tinged with bitterness, regret, and obsession. There are moments of real savagery and disorientation, and of sublimation and blissful emptiness. There are moments of brittle emotional heft and clarity that will summon tears. And there are plenty of other moments that I don’t fully understand and can’t describe because they blur all these elements together. I won’t go into details too much, because why spoil the fun that’s on the horizon, but there’s a vocal line in one song where Danny hits a note that makes my heart break every time, and there’s a guitar line so delicate and fragile in another that it makes my eyes hurt, and in another there’s this ungodly, nasty, perpetual motion and chaos noise that wont stop until it obliterates itself. I feel like there are a dozen moments in every song that I’m addicted to and want to hear over and over again. Often drums. Or bass. Or electronics. But very often a melody, or a twist in a tune, or a feeling I’ve never felt before but feel like I remember.
I’ve come to distrust artists who don’t pay attention to how their records sound, to take that as a shorthand signifier of the fact that they don’t really care about what they’re doing or their audience. The sound of this record is meticulous without being fussy, the elements coalescing into something blisteringly exciting. It’s almost eccentrically dynamic at points; quiet moments collapse to practically nothing, while choruses surge and explode, and chorus like you haven’t heard anyone manage for a long, long time. It’s like they’ve rewritten a songwriting paradigm that people had forgotten.
It covers a lot of ground but it also hangs together very cohesively. There’s been talk about it being ‘dark’; certainly there’s a lot of desperation, obsession, and self-loathing on show in the lyrics; hyper-melodic songs that hide uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant sentiments. An awareness of bad patterns of behaviour and trying to break them, a fear of compulsive self-sabotage, of time wasted. If Rik’s spent eight years perfecting sonics then Danny might have spent eight years excoriating himself so he’s got something to write about. There’s a hint of redemption in some songs. In others there really isn’t.
There’s a theory that states that our brains work on two systems. System A is instinctive, animalistic, and emotional, governs things like the instinct to fight or flight. System B is the thinking, logical, reasoning, problem solving, intellectual part. Psychologists have done research (I’m a big fan of research; I work in higher education) and reckon we often make decisions with the inappropriate system sides of our brains. What’s the ‘appropriate’ side for listening to music? Is rational choice even relevant here?
My suspicion is that if rational choice gets involved to much, then you end up more defined by what you don’t like than what you do. And that seems pointless to me. But being defined by anything seems pointless to me; being recognised I can understand, signifiers as signposts, but not as limitations. ‘Brand’ is about identity: I am the type of person who listens to music like this; who dresses this way; who drinks this beverage; who goes to this university; who drives this car. But that’s not the extent of who I am. You can, and I do, like Embrace as well as jazz, and minimal techno, and pop music, and krautrock, and hip hop, and weird art drone, and postpunk, and electronica, and anything and everything else. And likewise Embrace can do pretty much anything and still be Embrace: and at times they have; those kazoos again.
Music doesn’t have to be a reaction to what came before. It either makes you feel something, or it doesn’t. Understanding why is useful – it can help you find other stuff that’ll make you feel something, and analysis for the sake of itself, in an autotelic way, is just a good thing – but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all. You can’t always control emotional reactions, and, although it’s arguably what separates us from animals, it’s not always desirable to do so, anyway. Catharsis is a good and valuable thing; emotions are fun, and exhilarating. Not everything lends itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’, and that’s fine; if I only listened to stuff that did that, I’d live a pretty ascetic musical life, and I’ve always been interested in soaking up as much as possible where music is concerned. Try everything twice, in case you get it wrong the first time.
I have no idea how this record is going to be received; I don’t even really understand how I’m receiving it at the moment. Part of me wants to collapse and say it’s epochal; part of me just wants to feel relief that it’s not dreadful. I think the truth lies somewhere in between, if there’s any truth at all; this is a really good record, full of really good songs, done really well. Really, really well. Does it justify all those hopes and expectations I had way back when, and all the bullshit in between? Of course not; nothing ever could. Who cares? It doesn’t matter.
The thing is, this doesn’t need to be my favourite record ever, or the best record ever, or my favourite record of this year, or Embrace’s best record, or anything else at all (and what do ‘favourite’ and ‘best’ mean, anyway?); it just needs to be good, to be worth listening to. And it is. Of course, it’s just a rock record, and I’m not sure what rock is or whether I care about it anymore in 2014; I didn’t think I did. But I am finding myself caring about this, even 30+ listens in, and awful lot, and getting a buzz and an emotional hit from it, over and over again.
So, crazily, unexpectedly, it probably is their best record. How did that happen? They went away and made it happen. Because there wasn’t any point in coming back if it wasn’t.
Oh, and about the actual songs? There’s more to come.