A long and eventful four years have passed since Camera Obscura’s last full-length effort, My Maudlin Career. It was an enchanting album; the easy culmination of the band’s growing experience and, led by the frankly fantastic French Navy, their new high watermark in the popularity stakes.
Yet it appears that the winds of change have blown since the heady days of 2009. The Scottish quintet (occasional sextet) remain intact, yes – all 100 fingers and toes accounted for – and 4AD is still the label, but differences abound behind the scenes: gone are Björn Yttling’s mesmerising string and horn arrangements; gone is producer Jari Haapalainen of The Bear Quartet; gone, for the most part, is the band’s home town of Glasgow. In their place, Desire Lines offers up brief collaborations with Neko Case and My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, production by Grammy nominee Tucker Martine (R.E.M., Spoon, My Morning Jacket) and a figurative “Made in Portland, Oregon” sticker.
The latter is the key, right? For all the turnover among the supporting cast, it must be the The City of Roses that informs Desire Lines’ composition the most; it has to be the best-known alumni of Bridgetown’s burgeoning scene that coaxes Camera Obscura away from Northern Soul stylings and back towards their slightly darker origins: Elliott Smith, The Shins, The Decemberists, Blitzen Trapper.
It’s not quite so cut-and-dry. In fact, this is an album that picks up the reins of its predecessor in order to continue the same journey down the same path. Following a 30-second intro of ascending strings, This Is Love (Feels Alright) settles snugly into its forerunners’ footsteps: a languid brass riff, molasses-paced percussion, organ chords sunk deep into the mix. Forget the four-year hiatus: Desire Lines welcomes listeners like an old pair of slippers.
Troublemaker then picks up the pace with a bright and bold composition that’s reminiscent of The Concretes‘ early efforts, while the exquisitely regretful William’s Heart marks an early highlight, its delicate refrain soaring on the back of Tracyanne Campbell’s tender tones. Indeed, Campbell’s trademark timbre remains Camera Obscura’s calling card – not least when she imbues New Year’s Resolution with dreamy harmonies before rubberstamping the band’s soul-centric stylings by referencing Smokey Robinson & The Miracles‘ Tears Of A Clown on Do It Again, the LP’s quickest, shortest and most dynamic track.
So far, so good, yet by this stage – the halfway mark – it is apparent that the band’s reluctance to move away from their established sound is a mitigating factor. Granted, the adorable Cri Du Coeur dials up country-like elements until a dusty daydream ensues – a relative Camera Obscura first – but the listener’s ear soon begins to yearn for a departure. Every Weekday, for all its pleasantries, is as pedestrian as its title suggests; Fifth In Line To The Throne reclines when an aural jolt would be more beneficial; Break It To You Gently is delivered with gusto, but it’s too little, too late.
For Campbell and co, it’s a case of damned if they do, damned if they don’t: Desire Lines’ successes are due to its occupation of the same space as its fantastic forerunner – and its failures emerge for the very same reason. This is at once an enjoyable effort and an opportunity missed.