“Bands, those funny little plans, that never turn out right.” So sang Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue in 1998, presumably about his own relationship with his band, their problems over the years, and then their ascent to critical and crossover success at the close of a tumultuous decade. Danny from Embrace once said, of Deserter’s Songs, that he couldn’t work out if it was genius or not, but that he was obsessed with “Holes”, the song that lyric comes from. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, it could very easily be about his own band.
In case you don’t know, I have a relationship with Embrace. I wrote about them in my fanzine back in 1997, and their reciprocation, and my affection for them and their music, soon made that fanzine predominantly about them. In 2000 I followed them around the country as they toured, partying backstage and getting my name on the guestlist. In 2001 I was ‘Nick Southall, Embrace fan’ on a Channel 4 documentary about the recording and release of their third album. In 2005 I wrote the sleevenotes to their b-sides compilation. In 2006 I was thanked in the sleeve of their fourth album, not for anything specific, just for being enthusiastic and helping out and emailing them a bootleg MP3 of a song they’d performed live but forgotten how to play in the studio.
In that documentary I described Drawn From Memory as “schizophrenically eclectic”, and it is, from the cartoon Technicolor of the sleeve to the kazoo solo on “Hooligan” to the spiralling riffs of “New Adam New Eve” and the crazy keyboards lashed across almost every track like Day-Glo graffiti.
For a band often maligned as Oasis-lite or lumped in with Coldplay and Snow Patrol there’s a hell of a lot of love for a hell of a lot of music evident in this record (and it’s accompanying b-sides, where many of my favourite songs by them lived); when you’ve listened as closely as I have, read the interviews, conducted the interviews, spoken with band members in depth about what they were listening to in the studio, then it seems obvious, but for some reason the press and public never quite seemed to give them the credit for the eclecticism that seemed so obvious to me. “The Love It Takes” takes moves and ideas from Frank Zappa and David Axelrod; “Hooligan” tried to tie up Jimi Hendrix to Delakota; “Yeah You” is aiming for Shudder To Think; “Save Me” wants to be Happy Mondays playing Sly & The Family Stone. There is a pair of b-sides, called “Brothers And Sisters” and “Come On And Smile”, which somehow crunch up “Gratitude” by Beastie Boys. “I Wouldn’t Wanna Happen To You” pitches itself at the same weightless pop territory as “The Only Living Boy In New York” by Simon & Garfunkel. There’s another b-side (“With The One Who Got Me Here”) which completely deconstructs its own sound-palette and ends up feeling like “Kangaroo” by Big Star as recreated with Pro Tools and a Casio. This album and its next of kin are all over the shop. Psychedelic, you could say.
Out of Nothing is a more straightforward, linear rock beast by far, but no other record has ever made me cry like it. Granted, I was in odd emotional territory for a bunch of reasons in 2004, but songs like “Keeping”, as much as I’ve barely listened to them in the last six or more years, would have me in floods of tears on a regular basis during my train commute that summer, it seemed. I recognise a little, after last year’s Olympics, that the sensation is partly one of seeing people who have struggled to follow their passion suddenly, emphatically knock it out of the park, so to speak. These days I have issues with the mixing, the sequencing, the choices that got left off (b-sides that ripped from Manitoba, Fugazi, “Thriller”, Eno), but the huge emotional resonance this record had at the time was extraordinary. I’ll never forget the comeback gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which I watched mostly from the wings where I could see the crowd’s reaction as much as the band’s. I’ve never really experienced anything else quite like that euphoria.
I had expectations, and ambitions, and dreams, for Embrace when I was 18. I wanted them to somehow both conquer the world, and be the most exciting, innovative, expressive band there had ever been. That weight of unrealistic adolescent fantasy can never, ever be brought to life, not really. Embrace had plans, too. They wanted to be My Bloody Valentine with strings, Ride playing Curtis Mayfield songs, Al Green and Pixies and Otis Redding and Screamadelica and PJ Harvey and The Beach Boys. The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on acid. Why wouldn’t you?