Sunday, April 12, 2009
If the commercial breakthrough of Elbow last year was cause to rejoice for most of us, fellow Mancunians Doves must have looked on with more than a touch of envy. Just like Elbow, they’ve been releasing frequently excellent music for over a decade, quietly going about their business while the media fall at the feet of the latest all-style-no-substance buzzbands. Lost Souls was an accomplished debut which mixed swelling anthems with windswept atmospherics, but it was topped two years later with the cinematic splendour of The Last Broadcast, one of the best records of the decade so far: a stunningly ambitious work summed up by the extraordinary mini-symphony ‘The Sulphur Man’, the sort of composition Radiohead may have produced had they not decided that ‘sentimental..always ends up drivel’. 2005’s Some Cities was a patchy, disappointing follow-up, but there was still enough quality to reign in new fans whose interest was piqued by the skewed pop of lead single ‘Black and White Town’.
Four years on, expectations and stakes are high: the band apparently came close to splitting up during the long, arduous sessions for their fourth album, but they pulled through, and numerous media outlets are acclaiming this as the trio’s best album yet. They’re certainly not pandering to anyone: opener ‘Jetstream’ immediately wrongfoots anybody who’s approaching this album on the back of all the Elbow comparisons; instead it doffs a cap to those other sons of Manchester, New Order. The band have described it as being influenced by Vangelis’ Bladerunner score, and there’s a definite sci-fi feel to the track: somewhat disconnected vocals relay eerie imagery (‘Jets turn and make no sound/Returning to the solid ground/People drift out of time..’) over a gently pulsing synth backdrop, the music building in intensity, layers subtly added until it reaches an elemental guitar crescendo.
The filmic quality of the music continues with the title track and lead single. The spaghetti-western-tinged atmosphere and dramatic, forlorn strings of ‘Kingdom of Rust’ evoke an air of rootlessness and restlessness just as the lyrics make reference to fruitless searches for ‘that stolen heart’. This track is more recognisably Doves – in fact, it’s vintage Doves, its yearning melody and soaring guitar riff reminiscent of previous career highpoints like ‘There Goes the Fear’ or ‘Almost Forgot Myself’.
The next track in, ‘The Outsiders’ is the angriest track the band have ever recorded, with fuzzy, distorted guitars framing Jimi Goodwin’s belligerent vocals, but from here on in things become disappointingly straight-laced. ‘Winter Hill’ has a certain breezy catchiness to it, but ultimately sounds like a poor cousin of ‘Words’, and in all honesty the kind of thing that you’d imagine Doves trotting out in their sleep. ‘Birds Flew Backwards’ calls to mind the weaker tracks on Some Cities, aiming for the atmospheric but just sounding aimless, while ‘Spellbound’ is evidently intended to be the anthem of the piece but ends up sounding overwrought, hindered by an inappropriately gruff delivery from Goodwin.
There is one more pleasant surprise though, in the shape of ‘Compulsion’. Apparently inspired by the punk/dub experiments of the Clash and in particular the bass style of Paul Simonon, it does indeed have an unmistakable Sandinista! vibe to it, with rogue rebel yells and clamouring guitar echoing in and out of a mix anchored by a liquid, supple bassline. Unlike anything the band have done before, it’s unfortunately followed by the unremarkable, plodding ‘House of Mirrors’, and frustration returns.
Subtlety was always an important part of Doves’ appeal: even with festival favourites like ‘Pounding’, there was a vital sense of dynamics that tended to elude other bands who ploughed a similar furrow, but too often on their latest release they sound like a band who are throwing too much into the mix in an attempt to recapture the old magic. While they’re still capable of sporadic greatness, ultimately Kingdom of Rust just reinforces the suspicions of sceptics like me: when a band is taking so long to record an album (see also Franz Ferdinand), more often than not it’s the regrettable sign of a band running out of ideas. Hey, it happens.