Album Reviews

Oxbow – Love’s Holiday

(Ipecac) UK release date: 21 July 2023

A powerful rumination on its presence, absence, and the power, both good and bad, that love holds over us

Oxbow – Love's Holiday Over the course of a career spanning some 35 years, Oxbow has slowly been growing and evolving. Initially a confrontational and awkward proposition, the band’s music and lyrical content has always been considered, twisted and repeatedly packed a punch. Love’s Holiday is their eighth album and sees them progressing the slightly more digestible musical approach they adopted on their seventh, Thin Black Duke.

Part of the reason lies with co-producer Joe Chiccarelli, who encouraged the bands to keep things simple this time around, something that they considered to be almost transgressive, given their complex and occasionally bombastic nature previously. There are considerable tonal shifts at play too, with some beautiful orchestration on a number of tracks. The addition of guest vocalists Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) on Lovely Murk, Roger Joseph Manning Jr on 1000 Hours provide intriguing counterpoints to Robinson’s vocals, but perhaps the most affecting addition to the Oxbow sound is the presence of a 15 member strong choir on Gunwale and All Gone. There are times during the course of Love’s Holiday that Oxbow are bowed at the altar, wondering just where this thing called life is going to take them.

The album also represents a change in the way that Oxbow write. Guitarist Niko Wenner wrote the music before vocalist/lyricist Eugene Robinson presented him with any lyrical ideas. With Wenner having had two children in recent years, the melodies for Love’s Holiday presented themselves when he was singing to his infants. At times, it’s an absorbing diversion to imagine just what the Wenner sings to his children given the intricate nature of some of his arrangements.

So, with Oxbow stepping away somewhat from their usual patterns of behaviour, one could be forgiven for approaching this album with some trepidation, particularly if you’re a fan of their catalogue to date. Such fears should be discounted however, as this is not a collection of mawkish ballads, underpinned with melodies suitable for the nursery school. Nor is this an album entirely stripped of complexity and discordance. Yes, their approach is a little more direct this time around, but the result is an album that provides an instant hit of melancholy, a punch of difficult truths, and underneath it all, a sense of understanding (and occasional confusion).

Opening up with Dead Ahead and Icy White & Crystaline, Oxbow deliver a swift salvo of blows that instantly grab the attention. Dead Ahead finds Robinson at the helm of the love boat, not entirely sure of how to navigate the stormy seas above, other than with squalls of riffs and a pained howl directed at the god of love. Icy White & Crystaline meanwhile is possibly Oxbow’s most musically straightforward song to date, musically at least. A fairly basic riff underpins Robinson’s rasping vocals. From here on out, things get a little more introspective. Lovely Murk finds Robinson in contemplative mood as he’s joined by the always wonderful Kristin Hayter. The song itself is stripped back to a simple guitar line allowing the pair to establish an atmosphere that swings between the beautiful and the mournful. The same is true with 1000 Days, which again takes a relatively simple and delicate arrangement and marries it to Robinson’s damaged lyrics and Roger Joseph Manning Jr’s elegant vocal layers.

The piano led All Gone, finds Robinson sounding almost dead on his feet as he attempts to rationalise this thing called love. “I can’t…” he mutters, before concluding “well… I must”. Robinson’s vocals never really garner the attention they deserve, but on this album, he channels a range of emotions through his frequently changing approach. From torture screams and forceful growls through to his almost resigned croons, he hits the mark consistently across every single one of these songs, giving the album a depth of emotion and range that is incredibly impressive. A particular highlight comes during The Second Talk where Robinson goes toe to toe with Wenner’s feral slide guitar. Part blues, part throw down, it’s a confusing but utterly enthralling rollercoaster of a ride. The album closes with the gothic hymn of Gunwale and finds Robinson back at the helm of the ship of love, “steering near and closer to harm”. It’s uncertain as to whether he or Oxbow have drawn any real conclusions about love over the course of the album, other than it has many different facets and that all you can really do is keep steering the ship even though it would appear that the course is set.

On the surface, Love’s Holiday might appear to be Oxbow’s most simplistic and approachable album to date. But like its central theme, and this being Oxbow, nothing is ever really simple. To paraphrase Public Image Ltd, this is not a love album, in a form that most would recognise. It is, however, a powerful rumination on its presence, absence, and the power, both good and bad that love holds over us. Oxbow understands the power of love.

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More on Oxbow
Oxbow – Love’s Holiday
Oxbow – Thin Black Duke