Review Summary: How not to follow up a hit breakthrough album.
If you're a band that's been chilling on the almost-mainstream scene for quite a while, there are basically two ways you can go about defining your future. You can hone your sound, experiment a little bit, and be largely content to affect the occasional music fanatic whilst making a living from doing what you enjoy. On the other hand, and assuming that you have aspirations involving fame and money, you can take a step in the direction of radio-friendly songwriting and hope that you explode on the music channels and make it big in the musical press. Embrace's 2004 album Out Of Nothing was just what its title suggests; a surprisingly touching dose of middle-of-the-road soft piano-rock which, while in no way original, was packed with the kind of artistic uncertainty that made everything feel so beautiful. The faint quiver in vocalist Danny McNamara's falsetto on A Glorious Day is proof alone that the very human quality and a large amount of sincere emotion survived the transition from semi-obscure britpop to fully fledged radio rock. Out Of Nothing was, as a result, a successful and sometimes astounding effort.
The problem then, though, is where you head after
your breakthrough album, and the trouble with This New Day
is not so much that it sounds like they chose the wrong path, but that it feels like Embrace managed to dodge the question entirely. A record which sounds markedly more confident in execution than its predecessor, it's capable of achieving that on the simple basis that they've done it all before. A mixture of 'epic' piano ballads and soaring, platitude-filled anthems, all topped by the inoffensive, pleasant vocals of McNamara; there's nothing about This New Day that will necessarily scare off old or new listeners, but it's such an exercise in mediocrity that one has to wonder for the future fate of a band with a lot of ability and not much idea how to use it.
Start with their brilliant, optimistic pop melody-writing, and you have a prime example of the problems This New Day faces at every juncture. Tracks like Sainted and No Use Crying make poor attempts at the catchy choruses scattered throughout Out Of Nothing and the rest of the band's back catalog; the layered and detached vocals do nothing to remedy this problem. The ballads fare well in this department (I Can't Come Down is possibly the most simple and fantastic track they've ever written) but there's an underwhelming edge to almost all of the 'rockier' numbers on offer and that drags the overall quality of the album down considerably. There's potential for a lot of sing-along, uplifting songs, but most of them just fall flat on their faces courtesy of an unimpressive chorus. The only quicker song which holds much merit at all is lead single Nature's Law, which despite lyrics which border on laughably cliched is still a pretty endearing pop song. The guitars everywhere are standard radio-pop and the drumming is simply faced with the challenge of keeping tracks alive and breathing which, for the large part, it's capable of.
Embrace are still at their best when they make full use of their sweet-as-hell piano lines, and it's evidenced by the fact that every stand-out features it prominently. The aforementioned Nature's Law lives off its opening cyclic riff and Celebrate is another track which owes most of its merit to the way in which the piano fits snugly around the heartwarming vocals. But when the piano's low in the mix (or absent) and Embrace try their hands at something more straightforward and, well, dull, then it generally ends badly. They simply aren't brave enough or unique enough to stand out when they turn into a guitar-based band; they aren't daring or special with a piano, either, but at least they manage to maintain some sort of consistent aesthetic and it actually sounds damn good.
At the end of the day nobody expected very much of a leap in sound from Embrace in 2006 but a little diversity and development would have gone a long way to making This New Day a more interesting album to encounter; as it is, it's just a repeat of Out Of Nothing with a lot less fragility, bland lyrics and less consistency, and while their hardcore fans will find something here to enjoy it's unlikely that many others will. The aplomb with which they execute their formula becomes tiring instead of impressive and the emotion rarely feels raw or real. At one point I was going to say that there's nothing really wrong
with This New Day, just very little right
, but that would be misleading. Embrace had the chance to capitalise on 2004's successes and even a complete remake of their breakthrough record would have kept them in the spotlight and helped them to amass a more significant following. The reason This New Day was unable to do those things is not just because of a lack of originality, but because it's sub-par, boring and largely irrelevant.