“The water’s frozen to ice, we opened up the floodgates far too late this time,” Danny McNamara sings wistfully over a subdued guitar line, and you know at once that you’re listening to an Embrace album. But it’s only here, at the start of this album’s fourth track I Will, that we come across the point at which that moment of recognition really appears.
Embrace have gone all electro, you see. It’s no great surprise – after all, everyone’s at it this year. Bombay Bicycle Club have gone down that route, The Kooks have gone even further with an RnB pastiche, and Embrace’s old friends Coldplay also seem to be focussing on synths and beats with their new material. So are Embrace simply jumping on a bandwagon here? The fact that it’s been eight years since their last album, This New Day, suggests not. That suggests that they’ve been refining their sound until they’ve achieved something they’re sufficiently confident about to make it a self-titled album.
And often it is indeed a success. When the kick drums and synth hooks rise up from the brooding introduction of opening track Protection it’s a striking statement of intent, and the song manages to meld that mood with the band’s trademark big choruses. In The End is even better, and more subtle. With its melodic bassline and lilting yet insistent guitar it sounds rather like latter day New Order. There are hints of Joy Division too, in the insistent pummel of Self Attack Mechanism.
However, there are moments when they take the electro direction a bit too far, notably in closer A Thief On My Island. A slow build and anthemic chorus is nothing particularly new where Embrace are concerned, but when the middle eight gives way to something that sounds suspiciously like a dubstep drop, one wonders whether they might be trying a bit too hard. Then there are the more middle of the road tracks, like Refugees and Follow You Home, which come across a bit Bastille, inoffensive but unadventurous.
Quarters, in contrast, is a bold experiment that pays dividends. It begins with a riff of synth stabs over which McNamara delivers his lyrics, heartfelt yet cool: “Now our love lies in quarters, it was halves when I met you.” Then a big driving beat kicks in, and on top of that, before you’ve had time to acclimatise to it, the vocals are all over you in a wonderful disco falsetto. From there it keeps building, but it still feels like it’s kept tightly under control.
Rightly or wrongly, Embrace have often got a bad rap over the years (for one thing, they have the dubious distinction of being the only band to whom this site has given a zero star review). They’ve sometimes seemed a bit soft, a bit naff, and there are moments when that’s the case here. There are no less than two references to Facebook (“It said on your wall that you’re over me” in Follow Me Home and the cringingly bad line “I got on your friends list to see who you went with” in Protection), which are sure to date pretty badly; plus the aforementioned Bastille-like moments.
But the album hits more often than it misses. Longstanding fans will either love or loathe the more prominently electronic direction, but it’s clear that Embrace have succeeded in keeping up with the times while continuing to sound like the same band. And the missteps can be forgiven, because this is appreciably more interesting than anything Embrace have done before. There might be a stylistic change here, but more than anything it feels like they’ve gone from being the musical equivalent of a safe pair of hands to being a more exciting prospect.