Review Summary: Camera Obscura emerge from their three year hiatus with a more mature, more mournful sound that befits them as they traverse middle-age.
It’s never less than a privilege to listen to a truly excellent band grow up; to hear a once spiky sound transform over the course of many years of graft into something warm and refined and confident; to bear aural witness to a group of musicians realising their considerable potential. I have felt all of these things and more whilst listening to Desire Lines, the new LP from Camera Obscura: scrappy Scottish underdogs with an undeniably twee sensibility who have therefore spent much of their career suffering comparisons with Belle and Sebastian’s shadow.
With this new record, any such generalisations can hopefully be put to rest. Tracyanne Campbell and her bandmates have never lost their way with a pop hook, but this collection of songs is less bubblegum-sweet and more stylish savoury slice of grown-up pop. Lead single ‘Do It Again’ is as close as you will find here to the irresistible sugar rush of ‘French Navy’ or ‘Let’s Get Out of this Country’ and as such it is the most immediately, infectiously enjoyable track on offer. But deeper satisfaction is to be found elsewhere. On ‘William’s Heart’ Campbell displays her songwriting chops by concocting a tragic fiction around the eponymous character, wondering “if he’s lost; does he need a friend"” That question is delivered with the plaintive melancholic sweetness that marks Campbell and her band out as pre-eminent amongst contemporary indie-poppers.
Elsewhere, what starts off as self-deprecation, (“New year’s resolution- to write something of value”), quickly turns within the space of a line into a wrenching tale of a precariously balanced relationship, backed by increasingly assured musicianship.
It takes until the final third before Desire Lines truly blossoms. That flowering comes with the quite stunning ‘Every Weekday’: a heartfelt plea to a lover to stick around couched in the gorgeous surprise of a calypso rhythm. ‘Fifth in Line to the Throne’ meanwhile moves as grandly and as regally as its subject matter suggests. The lyric, “I gave you a regal name; you treat me like a queen, but like a queen; I don’t know if I’ll be slain” provides a perfect example of just how much the band has grown up in the three years since ‘My Maudlin Career’.
And all bands must, at some point, go through that growing up process. The real test is to emerge from the inevitable period of introspection with signature sound mostly intact yet somehow more mature and streamlined. In this respect, Desire Lines represents a quiet mid-career triumph. Camera Obscura are over the teenage hump with equal parts grace, style and beauty.