Camera Obscura have built a career on writing love songs. Songs about blossoming relationships; romantic breakdowns; indecent affairs; heartbreaks; rejection; resignation; love of the wild, ecstatic, unbridled variety; love of the cruel, unrequited variety; even love of the mundane, everyday variety – the Glaswegian indie-pop veterans have been mining this singular subject for the past 20 years and in doing so have forged one of the most consistently brilliant discographies in indie music today.
Desire Lines predictably picks up where 2009’s My Maudlin Career left off, circling the same musical threads of Motown-era soul, country balladeering, lush stringed arrangements and the indie sensibilities of their forebears Belle and Sebastian that the band perfected on 2006’s still-essential Let’s Get Out Of The Country. That Desire Lines is content to retread familiar terrain without ever truly reaching for something new is the only real criticism that could be levied against the album in good conscience. But when the melodies are this crisp, and the harmonies this sweet, it’s hard to view any perceived dearth of musical progression as a true drawback.
Delayed by band illnesses and indefinite hiatuses, the recording of Desire Lines moved Camera Obscura out of the country, all the way to Portland, Oregon, to work with producer Tucker Martin (R.E.M, Sufjan Stevens). Despite this change in personnel and scenery, the band’s autumnal aesthetic remains very much intact. And after a perfunctory swell of Jeremy Kittel’s introductory strings, the album starts proper with “This is Love (Feels Alright)”, a cautionary tale of teenage romance told with jaunty guitars, melancholy horns, and subtle percussion that will sound comfortingly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in the band’s work.
As with all Camera Obscura albums, it’s Tracyanne Campbell’s plainly beautiful voice that quickly takes centre stage. Like sunlight flooding through the cracks, Campbell’s voice has the enviable quality of filling even the coldest and darkest of spaces with a warmth and brightness that just feels endlessly welcoming. It’s on the up-tempo “Troublemaker” though, that Campbell’s trademark dry sense of humour amidst lyrical presentiments of romantic doom gets its first airing. “Three years in and I call to crush what remains of this love / It’s going to be one hell of a year” she sings between swathes of melodic guitar lines and a faint synth pulse. Just as the protagonists in early Bruce Springsteen songs openly fantasised of escaping their surroundings only to remain trapped without the courage to first escape themselves; Campbell more often than not seems stuck in the wrong relationship at the wrong time, with one foot in the tryst and one foot out the door, always lacking the courage to take the next step. “I fall down like a tonne of bricks / What makes me sick won’t make me quit”.
Album highlight “William’s Heart” sees Campbell’s infectious vocal harmonies weave in and out of Kenny McKeeve’s shimmering guitar, swirling around the lyrical coda, “To die in the arms of a twenty year old“; and the title track is full of country swagger and downbeat balladry, with organs, piano, acoustic guitar and lightly brushed drums contributing to yet another tale of heartbreak. It’s not all doom and gloom though, with the upbeat nostalgia of “Do It Again” recalling My Maudlin Career’s sublime “French Navy” in spirit if not tone; and the chipper muted guitar that underscores “Cri Du Couer” is neatly backed by Jeremy Kittel’s stirring strings. Elsewhere, “I Missed Your Party” is a breezy, Motown-esque deep cut that paints sitting at home watching Flashdance as an exercise imbued with heartbreaking implications; “Every Weekday” is musically upbeat with jangly guitars that call to mind Johnny Marr and the Smiths, while lyrically unfurling further romantic strife; and “Fifth In Line To The Throne” is a tragic waltz.
Desire Lines may not throw up any surprises or take Camera Obscura into territory that hasn’t been explored by them on numerous albums already, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a band is this self-assured and attuned to the quirks that make their music so celebrated by those who are familiar with it, there’s little need to rock the apple cart.