2004 Year End Thoughts
ou don’t choose your favourite band, I don’t think. I’m not sure how it comes about, that connection, or why it comes about either, but there’s little doubt that the strange bond which sometimes forms is very hard to break. Mine ruptured some time in 2002, when a sudden tide of past inspirations hit me upside the head one Saturday morning and I realised I was still hanging around, waiting for potential to be fulfilled, for promises to be acted upon, for the next album to arrive. I looked at my favourite band in terms of all the things they’d said they were inspired by, and I found they came up wanting. As you would.
But you can’t take a band on the terms of their inspirations and influences—influence doesn’t even exist, anyway, does it?
Back in January I didn’t even give Embrace a thought, just like I hadn’t through most of 2003—I assumed they had had their chance and would fade into the kind of obscurity that is the fate of most bands who promise great things but get caught in the spectre of the machine. I’d come to terms with the parts of their back catalogue that I still enjoyed, but I wasn’t waiting for what would happen next anymore. Seven years ago they were part of the reason why I started writing about music in the first place, why I put together and published a fanzine that sold 50 copies. But I’d grown, they’d grown, we’d moved closer together and then we’d moved apart. Those bonds might break, but the posts to which they are tethered still exist.
In April I heard new material, a dozen tracks or so, past the demo stage but not yet fully edited or mixed. I listened as a cynic, as a fallen fan, picking every hole I could. Half of them were good. Half of them were… very good. A couple were properly magnificent, shocked me, made me stop and think what this band were about, had been about, were meant to be about. Points of light started to burn through the fog. A re-evaluation was called for, and over the next couple of months I went back through every song, reread as many of the old things I’d written as I could, and tried to piece together what I’d felt before the fall. Was it like meeting an old girlfriend who you thought had left your affections, and finding old feelings stirring? I don’t know; that’s never happened to me. I had to go back and learn to take them on their own terms again.
One morning in late July the album landed on my doormat. I took the afternoon off from my day job and came home early to listen to it. I played it loud and alone, and wave after wave of emotion hit me. I cried like I’ve never cried before; big, gulping sobs echoing up from my gut and shaking my whole body, not tears of sadness or even of awe in the presence of beauty, but of relief. It hasn’t always been easy following this band. Supporting this band. (Because it wasn’t about being a fan, not quite. Not like with other bands.) I’ve had some revelations while listening to records before, some moments of awe where I’ve felt truly in the presence of the sublime. I’ve had a few moments where I’ve wondered if I was really alive and if this music really existed. I’ve had some fucked-up black spots in clubs, some seconds where I’ve felt I was going to cry because a song hit me in a certain way or was especially beautiful right now. I’ve had some lost minutes at gigs where the present has caught me and locked me in it and I’ve danced my arse off and not realised I was crying and singing and everything all at once. I’ve had some moments of release. Of torpor. Or boredom. I’ve had some moments of infantile sensual pleasure, spasming and jerking to a sound. I’ve taken headphones and a walkman to the most beautiful places I know and faced off with God, if God is there to face off with. What I’m trying to say is… I’ve listened to a lot of music, and I’ve enjoyed much of it in a way that goes beyond words (dancing about architecture) and I’ve had some experiences that are as close to profound as anything can get (I don’t believe in profundity, as a rule), but I’ve never had anything like that afternoon in July when I sobbed with relief. For weeks after, on the train, I’d experience little ripples of emotional echo as I played this record back through my iPod on the train or walking along the coast, tiny instances of punctum bursting my day and setting me off again for a second or a moment or a lifetime.
I’m still waiting for the next record, because I’ve heard some stuff that’s stashed away for it, and I’m certain that I will, on some levels, prefer it to this one, the one I’ve picked as my album of the year. I think musically it will be more interesting and diverse, more rewarding over a length of time (perhaps it will be the 49-game unbeaten run as opposed to the triumphant FA Cup Final Victory?); I think it will be their best album. But it won’t ever take me by surprise like this one has done. I don’t think anything will ever affect me the way this record has. Everything else just seems so… much less… I don’t know. And that’s it. I don’t know why I’m bothering now, because I’m almost certain that nothing is ever going to match that, that I’ll never be able to match that investment and return again, that I’ll never be able to capture that moment in words. Because really all I am here is a glorified catalogue, in essence, and I can’t see the point anymore. I’m not in it for the lists, that’s for sure. I’m not bothered about history and codification and the order of things. I’m bothered about that second when a song hits you. Isn’t that what it’s all about?