It’s become somewhat of a fad for bands with aspirations of something grander than becoming, say, the next Kooks (and who wouldn’t, eh?) to ‘do an Arcade Fire‘ – ie. throw in some lush, overbearing orchestrations and set a course for ‘anthemic’.
Such an approach is not without its benefits, as The Maccabees‘ recently lauded album Wall Of Arms has demonstrated. One of the earliest and best adopters of the baroque-pop movement, Greenock’s My Latest Novel, seemed to have vanished off the radar after their well-received debut Wolves which mixed the soaring histrionics of Win Butler with a much earthier Scottish folk element. While a little rough around the edges, the record promised much more from a band that, if nothing else, didn’t lack ambition.
After a gap of three years, then, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that new record Deaths And Entrances felt a little behind the times. That it doesn’t is as much to do with the band’s skill at crafting beautiful, if not a little frustrating, melodies as it is to do with a large cross-section of the rock industry’s biggest bands (Coldplay and Snow Patrol the worst culprits) still playing catch-up with Montreal’s finest recent musical exports.
Deaths And Entrances – named after a volume of Dylan Thomas poetry (there’s a literate element at work here, which we’ll come to in a minute) is a marked step up in both songwriting confidence and production values for the quintet from their debut, but luckily it still retains some of the pastoral quality that set that record apart from the raft of similar-sounding acts around at the time.
Album opener All In All In All Is All begins with a wash of warm static before diving into a pounding, three-part harmonised track with frontman Chris Deveney’s whisky n’ fags baritone delivery of lines like “I’m at war/ With thoughts of dragging you down with me” bouncing perfectly off his fellow bandmates voices.
This and one of the record’s poppiest moments, Argument Against The Man, are where Arcade Fire’s influences lie most heavy, but there is a constant, deliberately stirring, anthemic quality that can be also be heard in fellow Scottish ‘Fire worshippers Broken Records. It’s no coincidence that the band’s most likely breakthrough hit I Declare A Ceasefire is built around the same piano line as Rebellion (Lies) and is My Latest Novel’s simplest track by some margin.
Lyrically, the band draw on a veritable cornucopia of literary influences, from the aforementioned Dylan Thomas to Alasdair Gray and Edgar Allen Poe. Most striking perhaps is ballad Lacklustre, which imagines the last seconds in the life of L’Inconnue de la Seine, the unknown suicide victim whose death mask became a fixture in Parisian art in the early 20th century. When Deveney sings “Annie string up your ankles in metal/ Fear not the dark or the deep”, you can almost hear Roddy Woomble and Idlewild reluctantly handing over the crown of Scottish poetry-musos in residence.
One thing that must be said about the record is that it makes more sense listened to as a whole than as individual tracks. Either by accident or design, Deaths And Entrances takes a couple of listens to fully appreciate what the band are trying to achieve, and often the songs’ best melodies can creep up on you without warning. The fact that If The Accident Will takes two and a half minutes to get going, for example, before finally bursting into a glorious, cacophonous mess that echoes Doves‘ best single There Goes The Fear, can either be seen as individual and intelligent songwriting or really bloody annoying, depending on how long you’re willing to give the record.
There are other criticisms that can be levelled against My Latest Novel, of course. The album can feel a little one-note, especially on first listen, and if you’re not willing to put up with a band wallowing in slightly portentous flag-waving then you’d best have a skim through on Spotify before deciding to invest. But give it time, and a picture of a band going about their business slowly, steadily and confidently will begin to emerge. They’re not the next Arcade Fire, admittedly, but who the hell wants to be?