Saturday, July 21, 2007

SONG: "In Competition for the Worst Time" - Idlewild (Make Another World, 2007)

It’s often said that you always hurt the ones you love, so it’s with a certain sense of regret that I say that being an Idlewild fan can be an extremely disheartening business at times.

The band’s gradual metamorphosis from frenetic Edinburgh noiseniks to purveyors of sprawling indie anthems hasn’t been entirely without merit - on the contrary, over the years they’ve improved dramatically as songwriters and the band’s unwavering control over their evolving musicianship consistently impresses. Indeed, it’s also worth noting that it’s not as if the transformation was never signposted: one of the key elements that distinguished their early work was the snatches of snotty melody which underpinned even the most borderline-unlistenable thrash-along like Self Healer. Until recently, however, they’d seemed virtually unrecognisable from the band that used to decimate tiny stages while livewire frontman Roddy Woomble lay on his back screaming out the lyrics to You Just Have To Be Who You Are. Back in the day they were everything other British bands weren’t – punchy, incendiary and abrasive. Equal parts chaotic Dischord punk and Reckoning-era R.E.M., both live and on record Idlewild were a ferocious ball of uncontainable energy: furious, unpredictable and frequently hazardous to be around.

They were also perhaps the most distinctive-sounding group in Britain, both sonically and in terms of their conceptual framework. Like key early influence Nirvana, their chosen moniker (a reference to the secret meeting place in Anne of Green Gables, and a word cleverly split in two on the front and back of their tour shirts) perfectly summarised the conflicting factions of the band’s schizophrenic personality. Furthermore, there was always something intriguing and faintly menacing about the way their songs would hinge around one or two key phrases, with the overall meaning constantly twisting and turning as if trying to break free from its own self-imposed constraints (check out Low Light, the closing track on Hope is Important, for a perfect example of this conceit). There was an almost malevolent precision to Woomble’s lyrics as he applied a calculated and methodical spin to what might have otherwise been pedestrian topics: if he wrote a love song, for example, you’d never know it as the sentiment would be heavily disguised beneath a series of impenetrable abstractions.

However, the departure of wild-man bassist Bob Fairfoull in 2002 (allegedly due to a combination of excess and creative clashes over the band’s increasingly mellow direction) marked perhaps the key moment in Idlewild’s history. Their third full-length album The Remote Part split opinion down the middle amongst their core fanbase: whereas some praised its more measured approach and moments of undeniable beauty, others mourned the loss of the spark which originally made them such an exciting prospect. In reality, the album reflected the best of both worlds, with fizzy rockers Out of Routine and A Modern Way of Letting Go rubbing shoulders with more considered affairs like American English and the magnificent title track (which brilliantly married soaring guitar-lines to the mumblings of local poet Edwin Morgan). However, even the most adoring of fans would be hard-pushed to admit that it lacked the brooding volatility of their previous efforts.

It pains me to say it, but for a band once famously described as sounding like “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”, over the last few years they’ve sounded more like an old granny sat at the top of the stairs knitting. By all accounts, 2005’s Warnings/Promises was a placid, thoughtful record with the mark of ‘quality’ stamped all over it – the NME awarded it 9 out of 10 and proclaimed it a surefire bet for the Coldplay / Snow Patrol indie-rock big leagues. However, through a combination of poor promotion and disappointing word-of-mouth, the projected success never materialised and the band eventually parted company with their record label of eight years.

I interviewed drummer Colin Newton and guitarist Allan Stewart a couple of years back in a hiatus between summer festival dates and recording. Perhaps it’s the fact that the band have always been rather obtuse with the press, or perhaps the monotony of having to endure endless chit-chats with tossers like me finally got the better of them, but the hope of eliciting a choice soundbite from either one seemed as remote a possibility as the band ripping into the entirety of Captain once more for old times’ sake. Having outlasted many of their peers through a process of dogged transition, it’s natural that a certain weariness may start to creep in - as Newton pointed out, as they approach the age of 30 they can’t be expected to still be performing songs they wrote when they were 18 with the same fire and spirit. However, there did seem to be a lack of enthusiasm for their chosen profession on display – their set that night seemed uncharacteristically subdued, and when I asked what they thought Idlewild’s best songs were, both musicians faltered before eventually asking me (for the record: I Don’t Have the Map, Safe and Sound, Actually It’s Darkness and Idea Track).

To that list we can now add this, the opening track from their fifth and most recent album Make Another World. Perhaps as a reaction against the negative experience of the last record, it had been widely suggested that the next stage in their evolution would be to revisit the more rambunctious rock of their early days; fittingly, while the album doesn’t scale the heady heights of the still-unmatched 100 Broken Windows, it’s a definite return to form for the band, one which crackles throughout with a re-energised sense of purpose.

At their finest (cf. the aforementioned I Don’t Have the Map), the band have always demonstrated a keen ear for construction: their process is mechanical, weaving musical and lyrical patterns around one another to create an impenetrable labyrinth of interlocking motifs. In Competition for the Worst Time is a fine example of this, with each musical element pushing and pulling with such crisply-defined precision that the end product ticks like clockwork. Woomble’s famously blank delivery has always sounded emotionless but not without character, and it’s brilliantly applied here when he sings, “I know my name, but I can’t deny / I talk in silence like I’m used to” - chances are that we’ll get to never know what he’s feeling, but he at least sounds like he means it again and that definitely goes a long way in helping to restore confidence in the band (on Warnings/Promises Woomble had sounded listless and even disengaged at some points).

There are several other gems scattered throughout the album: Everything (As It Moves) rattles like a metronome, whereas If It Takes You Home is a racing two-minute cherry-bomb in the grand tradition of Everyone Says You’re So Fragile and A Modern Way of Letting Go. But it’s this track which really makes its mark on the listener, offering an encouraging glimmer of hope for a band whose unique aesthetic had, until recently, seemed all but misplaced.


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