Some artists are really great at and/or obsessed with doing one thing extremely well. Rather than building the kind of career-arc full of shape-shifting peaks and valleys that lends itself well to an imposed narrative pathologically constructed by obsessive music journalists, they instead put out consistently good-to-great work every few years that refines what they do and how they do it ever so slightly. It’s an extremely admirable and fairly utilitarian kind of thing, but it can make some very good bands very easy to take for granted when it can feel like they keep making the same kind of record over and over. Camera Obscura are one of these bands. They never need to reinvent the wheel because the one they have keeps rolling just fine. However, sometimes that means it takes a while to realise whether or not new material is actually any good or just familiar. Desire Lines begins with the latter but ends up with a lot of the former.
The first four songs proper – excluding the very brief, very lovely “Intro” – are Camera Obscura-by-numbers. The sound is still there, of course – even on their weakest material, this band has always sounded magnificently of a single, gorgeous, sun-drunk whole – but the songs are not. They kind of float by, and not in the pretty, weightless way you would use to positively describe prime Camera Obscura material – just the way boring, unmemorable music does. I’ve listened to the album in full half a dozen times at this point, and for the life of me I would not be able to hum a note of or quote a lyric from one of those four songs if you put a gun to my head. And for Camera Obscura, who when on their A-game can create such ruthlessly catchy tunes, that’s a problem. But with the brightly upbeat (and bongo-featuring!?) “Do It Again”, the record hits a pretty fine streak that shows the band doing what they’re generally known for doing very well while successfully incorporating new elements into their sound.
The absolute high point is “Cri Du Couer”, a ballad that should go down as one of the best songs Camera Obscura has ever recorded. Tracyanne Campbell has always been a kind of crooner-revivalist, and she’s got the kind of voice that can break your heart should she choose to do so. And there’s a moment in the second chorus of “Cri Du Couer” where she does just that, modulating a note just so in just the right way, and all of a sudden you realize how few vocalists there are in pop music right now that can wrench your entire being so effortlessly. It’s a very modestly magnificent moment, exactly the kind that this band is so good at.
Nothing else quite hits “Cri Du Couer”’s heights, but the rest of the record fares pretty well regardless. “Fifth In Line To The Throne” and “I Missed Your Party” are easy highlights, and if you’ve ever thought that “pastoral-samba” would make an excellent sub-genre, “Every Weekday” will help to validate your argument in front of all your friends who laugh at you. “Break It To You Gently” is a masterclass in how to write a pop song as a cutting critique of male-insecurity-deludedly-dressed-up-as-romanticism. An interesting development is the band’s newfound interest in synthesizers, something that colours the entire back half of the album. It’s not Trans or anything, but it’s very strange how well they’ve managed to make synths fit so seamlessly into a sound that always felt as though it could never be hospitable to an instrument so typically classified as “cold”. It’s almost like a trade – the last album’s bright blasts of horn for tasteful glimmers of Korg.
Anyone who goes into Desire Lines expecting to be surprised is someone who has never heard a Camera Obscura record before. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but it’s not the album that’s going to win over the unconverted or indifferent either.* It’s simply another very good record from a band that consistently puts out very good records. And that in itself is kind of great.
*They made that one last time out – it’s called My Maudlin Career and if it hasn’t partially soundtracked every one of your summers since its 2009 release, then you are doing summer wrong.
© J. Francis, Music Vice