This New Day
eah, I know I’m biased. But any “critic” who claims to have some kind of objectivity when reviewing a record is lying anyway—the whole point of a review is to say whether you like something or not. Arguably pure criticism is a different discipline to reviewing, but I’m dubious as to its worth in terms of how people actually listen to music and what they like, and it’s not what I’m here for anyway.
A year ago Danny McNamara promised me that I’d love the stuff Embrace were working on for their fifth album, saying they’d been writing together as a band and had been working on bigger, rockier grooves than ever before but that they’d still managed to lavish everything with plenty of melody. The group’s fourth album, the comeback success Out Of Nothing which shifted 600,000 in the UK, was full of big, brash tunes that thunder home but generally don’t give much to go back to, apart from the final two tracks—the band-written grooving rockers. Those two songs, allied with a host of b-sides that accompanied the album, set large expectations for this record. Those expectations have by-and-large been met.
Let’s get this straight. I wasn’t expecting something akin to Spirit of Eden in terms of sonic and spiritual revelation; I just wanted great tunes, great grooves, great guitar, great ideas, great melodies, and great production. I wanted Embrace to finally and consistently live up to the promise they showed back in 1997 with “All You Good Good People” and the Fireworks EP, promise they’ve sporadically matched (Drawn From Memory, “Over,” “Satellites,” “Ashes,” “Near Life,” many of their b-sides, the extraordinary title track to their last LP) but all too infrequently smashed. This New Day isn’t going to change the world or be hailed as one of the best albums ever. But it has satisfied me. For the moment.
“No Use Crying” has been a live favourite for the last year or more, and kicks the album off like a shot of fizzy adrenaline-laced pop to your veins. It’s cut from the same insistent cloth as “Ashes,” but is a faster, much less desperate affair, a superhero fantasy (“I’d take a bullet / Jump a speeding train”) with a joi-de-vivre riff run through it. “Natures Law” follows, and while it may be the band’s biggest single to date it’s far from the most interesting song here; a nice piano riff, pleasant melody, and excellent final surge coupled with relatively simplistic lyrics. It knocks the likes of Keane into a cocked hat, but that’s not saying much, especially when it’s followed up by something like “Target.”
“Target” is the kind of effortlessly melodic, unashamedly pop tune that Embrace have threatened for an age. From the moment it kicks in it sends shivers through your nerve endings in the way that undeniably great pop songs have always done. It shimmers and floats, lean and rhythmically taut, before launching itself headlong into a kamikaze chorus that threatens to raise roofs, burst lungs, and unite feuding religions. By the time the breathless, exultant middle-8 explodes into life, it’s really good.
This New Day veritably flies past in a muscular blur, its ten songs hammered through in less than 44 minutes by a band full of confidence and urgency to move on and develop. Almost every track brings a new idea or else realises an older one better than you’d expect. “Sainted” could be from the DFA stable, which isn’t such a surprise when you think back to the likes of “Save Me” and “One Big Family.” It’s lashed with disorienting wah’d guitar and founded on a relentless, minimal bass groove that’s like Sly & the Family Stone run through New Order. I love it.
If the first half of This New Day plays like a greatest hits rush of killer songs (and the opening six songs could all easily be singles), then the second half is an altogether darker, more experimental affair. “Even Smaller Stones” harks back to Embrace’s early aggression, and harnesses it to their recent driving momentum and psychedelic explorations to concoct a savage revenge fantasy, part Joy Division, part Northern Soul-era Verve, laced with nervous energy and disconcerting backwards flashes. “Exploding Machines,” mooted as the title track during recording, is a pyrokinetic succession of dramatics, salvos of guitar and explosive drum shots separated by hushed orchestral plains and undulating basslines. “The End Is Near” is propulsive, car-crash pop built over awesome, rolling piano and teetering on the edge of fatal accident in a series of striking tempo-shifts, while the closing title track is shot through with desperate, irredeemable clatter and spark.
There are flaws, sure—“I Can’t Come Down” is closer to Jim Steinman than Jimmy Webb (not necessarily a bad thing if you can deal with schmaltz) and lyrically Embrace have always been more Bernard Sumner than Bob Dylan—but the positives don’t just outweigh them, they shatter them. Danny’s voice is constantly pushed to the edge of his range but never buckles, proving he’s not only a braver but also a better singer than he’s ever been credited for. The rest of the band meanwhile sound both super tight and super inspired—Richard McNamara’s guitar is a flammable mass (the cathartic widescreen explosion three minutes into “Even Smaller Stones” is extraordinary); Mickey Dale’s piano hammers out hooks like never before (“Celebrate” is a tour-de-force of triumphant melody). But it’s the rhythm section that elevates Embrace most here, hysteria-inducing hi-hat and dead-set drum grooves (like when the snare falls back in halfway through the instrumental break in “Sainted”) matched by propulsive, relentless basslines, Mike Heaton and Steve Firth forming a bedrock for the songs to evolve from rather than just helping to carry them along.
I don’t know what it is about Embrace; I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words trying to get to the bottom of why they’re my favourite band and got no nearer to understanding it beyond the fact that I love the songs. If you “get” them then they defy their reputation, and are an infinitely more creative and brave band than is recognised. Each of their albums so far has been misleading because none of them have really caught what Embrace are about properly, who they are. This New Day, warts and all, finally does that. And the best thing about it is that I’m confident that their next one will be better again.