As Jarvis Cocker once asked, Do you remember the first time? Forgive the personal anecdote and soppy rose-tinted recollecting, but the first “proper” gig we ever attended was an Idlewild show.
It was the Spring of 2002, shortly before the band would release, what remains the Scottish Chaps most commercially successful album, The Remote Part, which at its peaked reached the frankly remarkable high of number three in the album charts. We packed into the back of our brothers car; we’d regale you with makes and models if we could remember, but memory extends to the fact it was blue, and had very limited leg room in the back seats. It also had a cassette player, and of the limited number of cassettes we had, easily the most prized was Idlewild’s seminal second album, 100 Broken Windows. It was our driving around the streets blaring it out tape, it lacked the bass of the Trance hits so popular with boy-racers of the time, but it was our own personal sonic blast. The car would survive this particular show, but die on the way back from another Idlewild gig, the engine failing on the motorway leaving us doing about 10 miles per hour on the inside lane, we pulled into the services, it wouldn’t start again, we debated how with no money and no car we would ever get home, one of our party would angrily kick the bonnet, which would remarkably make the engine start again. It got us home; it would never start again, gone to join the great list of vehicles burnt out in pursuit of rock and roll.
Memories of your first gigs live long. The venue, The Anson Room in Bristol which seemed, with our limited navigational skills in the days before Sat-Nav’s were widely available, practically impossible to find. Luckily being overly keen teenagers we’d left more than enough time to arrive not just in time for Idlewild but for all the support bands and a good bit of standing around before hand. If you’ve never been to The Anson Rooms, we can assure you as venues go, you are missing essentially nothing. As exciting as it was, even back then the venues resemblance to a secondary school hall was undeniable; up a flight of stairs turn left and you’re into a rectangular, flat, box. No slope, no decoration, it is without question one of the most non-distinct venues we have ever been to.
One of the most striking things then, and something we still love now, was the buzz and noise of a gig before the bands come on, the background chatter, the unmistakable noise of a room full of people talking, the words are indistinguishable but the nervous tension that builds around it, the applause as the lights dim, it’s as much a part of live music as the bands themselves. There were support bands: Scottish-post-rockers Aereogramme, snotty-London punks, who we briefly thought were the worlds greatest band; Ikara Colt, the lasting memory now being the fact their singer jumped on our heads! They seemed magical and impossibly brilliant then, but they were all just a mindless side-show to the main event. Our heroes taking to the stage, the front of the crowd becoming a thrashing mash of bouncing, pushing, singing and shouting, crowd surfers colliding with your head, the inevitable lost shoe so omnipresent at gigs back then. The heat, the sweat, the feeling that you might die, but at least you’d die happy. This was live music, and this made you feel alive. It’s a rush no concert has, or ever will, top.
We’d go onto see Idlewild countless times, in different venues, they’d sound better, they’d play harder, but they’d never beat the first time. They’ll always have a special place in our minds, and they’ll always be the first time.
IDLEWILD – EVERYTHING EVER WRITTEN
Ever since the release of 100 Broken Windows, Idlewild’s career has been something of a balancing act. On the one hand they have a loyal fan base that, for the most part, want them to stay as they were, to repeat the melodic but unquestionably rocky triumph of 100 Broken Windows, on the other they’re adventurous, their influences and interests stretching far beyond that sound, into folk, prog even a touch of jazz. Their desire to move on has created a constant battle between pleasing themselves and pleasing their audience – it’s resulted in some of their albums sounding a bit more like testing the water than ever really committing to a new sound completely. Warnings / Promises hyped up their folk meets the arena REM tendencies and received a muted response, so they went back to Make Another World and recorded a fairly straight forward rock record, that sounded like their earlier material only not quite as good, then they recorded Post Electric Blues and it sounded, well fine, nice enough, a bit uninspired, a bit folky in places, a bit rocky in places, but never quite really anything. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t that exciting, and perhaps more tellingly the band themselves didn’t even seem to find it that exciting. They were undeniably at a cross-roads.
They took to the road to mark the ten year anniversary of 100 Broken Windows, then following an injury to guitarist Rod Jones, and some cancelled American tour dates, the band went on a dreaded indefinite hiatus. Unlike At The Drive In or The Walkmen, it always seemed more like a comma than a full stop. The members all remained active, Rod Jones forming The Birthday Suit and releasing two albums, singer Roddy Woomble released a second solo album of folk songs. Their seemed no animosity between the members just a collective sigh of relief at escaping the grind of touring and being in Idlewild.
To the collective sound of much rejoicing at the back end of 2013, it was first hinted at, and then confirmed that the band were starting work on their seventh studio album. Recorded, of course, with a new bass player Lucci Rossi (their fifth by my count) and a new guitarist Andrew Mitchell, the fruits of those sessions is finally with us.
The break has unquestionably reignited the creative juices; it’s hard to imagine a song that would sound more out of place on their debut album, Hope Is Important, than All Things Different. It’s probably the oddest song they’ve ever recorded, heck it’s one of the oddest pieces of music we’ve heard all year, all squalling brass break downs, jazzy piano flourishes, and complex off-beat drum;, there’s even an acapella bit, and an accordion, and whistling! If Idlewild goes jazz isn’t exactly what most people want, it’s also got a big melodic chorus in between the noodling. It’s bold, perhaps bonkers and if the whole album sounded like it it’d be a complete car wreck. In moderation though it’s actually quite fun! It’s a theme they repeat throughout the album, there’s a pick and mix approach borrowing a little from one genre, a little from another there. Whilst in less seasoned hands it might sound like a lack of direction, here it feels more like a case of tonnes of ideas coming together at once and creating a set of songs that are varied, but cohesive. For every track like Every Little Means Trust, just the sort of gigantic slab of anthemic REM that they perfected on The Remote Part, there’s Like A Clown, a complete new detour for the band into Wilco inspired Americana.
One thing that hasn’t changed at all is Roddy Woomble’s unique lyrical world-view. He still manages to perfect the difficult balancing act of sounding both deeply poetic whilst simultaneously saying nothing at all. The man who gave us the beautiful line, “there was nothing but determination to come in third place” whatever that means, is on equally beautifully baffling form now 15 years later. On (Use It) If You Can Use It, over a gently meandering mesh of guitar lines, whirling fairground organs and snappy snare hits he sings lines like “you know that I want out my ambitions, I soaked them in wine” or “I’m in that photograph but it was taken before I was actually alive.” Baffling and charming in equal measure, the feeling that he writes as much for the sounds and textures of the words as for the meaning recalls Leonard Cohen, a poet first and a songwriter after.
There’s plenty beyond the lyrics for fans of the bands earlier material, On Another Planet is a three-minute blast of energetic punk. All yelped vocals, huge guitar chords that ring out, drums that snap with an electric energy and plenty of the frantic guitar soloing that make Rod Jones one of the finest guitarist these shores have ever produced. The inimitably brilliant chorus “we’ve got more in common than sorrow, it’s as if all the world could see you there, standing, staring, on another planet” is just begging to be shouted alongside the bands most loved material by the crowded masses at their upcoming shows, festivals and beyond. There’s a delightful cliche about feeling seventeen again bouncing around our heads that we can’t think of any other way of explaining – it just makes you feel alive!
If On Another Planet is a reminder of how well they do shouty-energetic numbers, Nothing I Can Do About It reminds you how they managed to briefly be a huge mainstream crossover act. The chorus is absolutely huge, a bombastic distorted guitar riff, soaring majestic strings, multi-part vocal harmonising, it’s a reminder they could match Coldplay or Elbow for arena-worthy anthemic alt-rock. Every Little Means Trust with it’s gently picked guitars and gorgeous swirling organ, is a beautiful amalgamation of their Scottish-folk roots and love of all things American, it too has huge pop potential, they remain a band you can imagine appealing to the audience of Radio 2 as much as 6Music, you can picture the sun-going down over the Other Stage at Glastonbury as the crowd sway in unison “Every little means trust, love at the end of love” whatever that means!
The track that premiered the album, Collect Yourself, is in some ways not an obvious choice for a single, it takes the best part of a minute for the distant feedback coated guitar to come into anything resembling a tune, but when it does it becomes very clear what a great idea it was! The guitar is a razor-sharp blast of noise, before it gives way to a gorgeous two-part vocal harmony, and a bouncing muted guitar line. “Young but only for a moment in time” the mighty chorus tells us, “older but frozen in time” probably apt for the majority of their audience who’ve aged disgracefully along with them! It ends with another blast of chest-thumping guitars.
On an album with such a variety of influences, their latest single Come On Ghost, is perhaps the most representative of where we find the band now; it’s packed full of ideas, it’s ambitious but it’s also clever, considered and that most horrible of terms, mature. For once that’s meant as a compliment; it’s the sort of song you don’t write without knowing a thing or two about song writing. Everything is judged perfectly, no guitar solo overstays it’s welcome, they repeat the best bits, it just sounds like they’ve really thought about structure, production, and every little detail that goes into making a song work. The beautiful, long instrumental outro, with it’s wailing brass, multi-part strings and distorted, honking guitar is just an excellent piece of composition, it’s almost orchestral in its ambition.
The album meanders a little in the middle, but it’s more than worth it for the stunning closing trio of tracks. Radium Girl has a beautiful keyboard intro for fans of Casios everywhere, that gives way to a surprisingly soulful vocal and bass intro, Roddy’s on oddly to the point form “you use your money up to pay your rent and what is left you spend on living in a way to pretend that you can shake off the gloom, I let you pretend” is just an excellent line about the dangers of escapism. The chorus is oddly catchy and radio friendly for what is essentially a long guitar solo and a bouncing bass line, you’ll be singing along to the line “you can feel that way alone, everybody feels that way alone, you could be cut in half like a radium girl, you’re missing out on the world” and then you’ll probably be wondering what a radium girl is too, answers on a postcard please.
Left Like Roses, starts off with drums that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Joy Division record, before a frantic piano and languid guitar line combine to a beautifully deep sound. The production throughout is wonderfully judged, producing a warm, dense sound, the addition of a regular keyboard player proving an excellent idea and a perfect match. Here it’s a quite unsettling track, it feels nervous, almost edgy, the unsettling whistling of the organ perhaps, or the persistent stabs of piano, all adding up to a prevailing sense of tension, which sits well with the lyrics about “collecting yourself from the one you love” and “rotten roses left for no-one by the side of the road” before giving way to a fantastic instrumental outro.
The closing track Utopia, starts off with a beautiful slab of reverberating piano flutters and distant swells of heavily affected guitar, building a wonderful sound bed, on which the song gently builds “in a few more hours, I’ll be there with you, I’m getting closer, I’m getting further away”. It has an unquestionable feeling of loss, a theme which permeates much of the writing on the album. It’s one of Roddy’s finest vocal performances, his voice carries a great emotional clout, he’s arguably never sounded quite so open or honest as he does here. It’s a perfect way to conclude the album, because it sounds like a band who are loving being a band again, loving playing together, and loving the return of that feeling that only creativity can truly bring. A triumphant return for a much loved and greatly influential band, who sound like they’ve still got an awful lot of creativity left in them, and the mid-week album chart have them in the top ten again: welcome back chaps!
Everything Ever Written is out now via Empty Words. Idlewild tour the UK throughout March.