So what does it actually sound like?
A subdued synthesizer oscillation forms the basis for an understated, slightly unsettling verse; this is how the album opens; it is not how previous Embrace albums have opened. This is “Protection”. Danny is restrained, his voice a slightly richer tenor than before, perhaps. It’s vaguely threatening, ominous. Something that might be guitar strings scrapes weirdly out wide in the mix, and a house-y drumbeat and treble-y synthesizer arpeggio flesh out the sound. Two minutes in, this verse suddenly explodes into a briefly enormous chorus, detonated by a live snare and a sudden surge of guitars that seems to swell impossibly. It collapses again to nothing but bass and those scraping strings.
Phenomenologically, the arrangement and mix are extremely impressive; the electronic elements don’t feel tacked-on, they feel intrinsic; dare I say ‘authentic’? That’s a horrible, loaded word that seldom gets used for anything but coercion, but the way that synthesizer pulse moves and reverberates through the soundstage, given space and allowed to breathe, makes it become substance rather than signpost, makes it feel honest and committed and real, somehow. Just the way that chorus really does surge, buoyed up on a mammoth bassline and propelled by layers of synth chords at high altitude, reeks of attention to detail. Someone really cared about how this album sounds. And it says exactly who on the sleeve; he produced, recorded, and mixed it, as well as writing the songs.
As a result there are a thousand details in the mix, all the way through the album, that will take you an age to notice, and keep you coming back and listening for more: the way the chorus of “Refugees” seems to be backed by an infinitely distant children’s choir; the layers of burbling synth behind the middle eight of “Follow You Home”; the entirely new melody, played out on distant bells or some such, buried in the decaying notes closing “I Run”; the universes of melody being destroyed at the end of “…Thief…”.
There are aesthetic shifts here, for certain. New Order, and dance music in general, are an overt influence feeding into things throughout the record; synthesizers, drum machines, dance floor rhythms, and occasionally that high, melodic bass that drives songs in a different way. Embrace always talked about these influences but, outside of a couple of remixes and some b-sides, they were seldom heard. Now they’re right here, front and centre, starting an album they’ve seen fit to name Embrace, and run right through the heart of it.
Embrace have been famously schizophrenic over the years, running an aesthetic gamut from orchestral grandeur to shoegazing thuggery to kazoo-led homilies via a thousand other things; their first three albums, in particular, betray a massive and diverse love of music that spans the horizons from funk to hardcore to soul to pop to metal to dance and beyond, all underpinned by a windswept, northern songcraft and bare-faced emotionalism that’s always been resolutely uncool. This scope has threatened to be their undoing in some ways.
Finally, two decades in, after eight years in a literal wilderness with no label, no A&R, and practically no contact with the outside world, it feels almost as if they’ve realised who they are, and, in their own words, come full-circle to the band they were before they were signed, before the record industry got hold of them and ran them through the mincer over and over again. (And oh boy, did they get run through the mincer; so many expectations, so many manipulations, people placing bets on them, the band trying to please everyone and forgetting themselves.)
“In The End” is a glorious pop song, energised and direct, with another fantastic, surging chorus and a gamut of thrilling, dynamic pauses and rushes in all the right places. A really powerful riff to start and then restless drums and a big, melodic, Hooky bassline that runs through everything else. Synth chaos painted over the top of the chorus itself. A great, exciting drop-out to just bass before the final furlong demonstrates the dynamic at play, the rise and fall, stop and start; yes, it’s manipulative, but you don’t get on a fairground ride to sit still, do you?
The chorus comes from an ancient, unreleased version of “Too Many Times”; as documented elsewhere, I thought it was the best chorus they’d written, and basically felt cheated for a decade that they’d never done anything with it. It’s a little frustrating that almost literally no one else in the world can ever know the feeling I experienced when I first heard it explode out of this song, completely unexpected. It was bizarre. Over the intervening years I’d forgotten what this band and their music can mean to me, and all of a sudden everything, all the hopes, dreams, memories, experiences and emotions came back in one big rush.
I’ve talked about “Refugees” elsewhere; in some ways it’s Embrace’s “Made Of Stone”. By that I don’t mean that it sounds like that song at all, though; rather it’s about a similar feeling and atmosphere. If “Made Of Stone” was “making a wish and watching it happen” then “Refugees” is wanting to make a wish and being afraid it won’t happen; both songs are about wanting something different, something more, something better, but one comes from a gang of young guys wanting to escape where they grew up and the other comes from a someone trying to raise kids in a country he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable in. Perhaps. (Because I have a theory that all of Rik’s songs are actually about his family and/or his band.) After the restless pace of “In The End”, “Refugees” feels like a pause for rumination, but it’s still loaded with dramatics and melody and intensity.
“I Run” is a slower song; you could call it a ballad if you wanted, but the swirling guitars and keys over the chorus, the muscular, cavernous bass driving the verse, the sheer force of emotion when Danny sings “because everything I ever do is wrong”, makes that seem like a very small word for something so emotionally big. And this is unashamedly massive, whilst still retaining a degree of intimacy somehow; again, that’s largely down to the way things are mixed. There’s incredible emotional intensity as the singer lays bare a lot of inner secrets, takes down some protective walls and confesses, apologises, and promises to do better.
Melodically it’s incredibly strong, piling line-upon-line as bridges and choruses change places. Emotionally, though, it’s even stronger; I’ve not always been a fan of these kinds of songs in the past, but something about this feels more honest, more painful, than they ever have before. When Danny hits the notes that build to his confession about doing wrong, it smacks me in my chest the way he’s been trying to do for decades. And when he gives up and just screams “no, no more” towards the end… Musically, the contours of the song rise and fall, find space to ramp up the intensity in the second chorus when others might have had nowhere to go, and Danny matches it move for move.
The chirpy “oh-ohs” and fidgety guitar riff of “Follow You Home” initially hide what’s actually quite a creepy sentiment; pop as Trojan horse for something a little darker. To me the stalking being done here isn’t necessarily of a romantic target so much as it’s of a creative muse; an audience or fanbase, perhaps, or a moment of musical inspiration. An illustration of the trepidation the band must have felt; what if no one cared anymore? “I wrote you letters / sang you songs / but nothing works on you no more” could easily be addressed to the band’s fans. When it takes eight years (8 years!) to produce an album, the struggle to make it must inform what it’s about thematically.
If I’m brutal, this is the song I’m least excited about on the record; that it’s still as catchy as hell, and gifted with an excellent middle eight and denouement that I think are fabulous, says a lot about the level of quality throughout the album. Insert something here if you like about poor singles choices over the years – “New Adam New Eve” should have been a single; “Glorious Day” and “I Can’t Come Down” never should have – but I don’t think this is a poor choice as a single. That said, it’ll be criminal if the next track isn’t a single.
I always wanted Embrace to work with a dance producer, because I had a feeling that it would end up sounding like “Quarters”, which is aesthetically, if not structurally, pretty much straight-ahead dance music; parts of it sound like nothing so much as The Knife, even while the guitars chime like something from The Unforgettable Fire. Compositionally it’s still about songwriting, though, rather than dancefloor build and release (although the component parts do that quite nicely too, actually); there’s a crazy bridge that goes all Justin Timberlake / Michael Jackson / Prince as Rik squeezes himself into a bizarre falsetto.
Meanwhile, ‘insouciant house diva’ as a vocal style suits Danny surprisingly well; there’s a certain semi-medicated quality to his vocals through the verses that really suits the sonic context. The chorus feels like it should soundtrack a scene in a film where the protagonist is out of it in an underground rave, lost and paranoid and chemically affected. Some people will feel like this is an ‘off-brand’ move, but the Perfecto remix of “One Big Family” was one of the first things Embrace ever released, and Danny used to bang on about how Prodigy and Chemical Brothers were the only bands releasing exciting music in the country. To me it was always inevitable that they’d go in this direction; I’m just baffled it took so long.
Or am I just imagining this, because I want them to sound like that? I played “Quarters” to a friend, apros of nothing, with no warning or context regarding who it was; the first response was “this is really good”. I revealed who it was. “Fucking hell” was the second response, “it’s not a remix?”. It isn’t. There is a definite ‘rock band go dance/electronic’, Achtung Baby / Reflektor etc etc (delete as appropriate) vibe happening here, but this seems more overt; less live-band-plays-disco than lone-guy-with-drum-machine-and-laptop makes a dance track. Except there is a live band here – just not all the time; the two merge into one another. Like I said, this was always meant to be in their DNA.
The riff that opens and evolves through “At Once” reminds me of the dappled sunlight guitar that ushers in “New Grass” on Laughing Stock by Talk Talk; it has that quasi-improvised feel, very beautiful and very fragile, always moving slightly out of pattern and off-center. Like a lot of the album, lyrically it could be about a relationship, or (more likely?) it could be about being a band, making this album – “we can build it brick by brick” – before the chorus and coda take things in a slightly different direction; they could easily be read as a (pretty excoriating) description of clinical depression. I really love the brevity here, especially of the coda; it adds a modesty and intimacy to the song that lends it emotional heft just as much as the way the bridge into the second chorus piles up on top of itself.
“At Once” is the closest thing to a moment of respite or calm here; there are no palette cleansers, no interludes or opportunities for quiet contemplation. But even this moment of self-reflection is leavened with a certain degree of melodrama, which comes from the strength of the tune and the conviction of the delivery. Might it have been ‘better’, somehow, if they’d taken the delicacy of its opening and let it drift, like “Now You’re Nobody” did all those years ago? It certainly would have been different, but I’m very happy with how it is.
As an aside, the start of “New Grass” by Talk Talk is one of my favourite things ever, because it’s incredible delicacy and beauty follows 10-minutes of emotional and sonic tumult, and chaos, and confusion (called “Taphead”). Very few people who’ve taken inspiration from those late Talk Talk albums have captured this properly; they tend to facsimile the beautiful bit without the tumult. The problem is that, as in life, the downs contextualise the ups; the chaos makes the beauty even more wonderful; just listen to Sunbather by Deafheaven. Those first two Embrace EPs juxtaposed the tumult and the beauty very well, of course. Sandwiched where it is, “At Once” seems to understand that dynamic too.
And so onto “Self Attack Mechanism”. I’ve basically been waiting seventeen years for Embrace to produce stuff like this and “Quarters”. Punishing, angry, technological, forward-thinking, still imbued with melody and structure and, importantly, emotion. Again, this is where, in my imagination, they were always meant to end up. “Contender” pointed towards this; electronic drums and slashing guitars; massive, grinding bass; big wafts of synth as the tune pauses; self-lacerating lyrics (“it’s me who’s alone with no sense of direction / and it’s me who’s a fool running scared of the message”). Extraordinarily exciting.
And the sound again, that mixing. At one point in “Self Attack Mechanism” something strange happens and it feels as if the sound is coming from behind you somehow (assuming your speakers are positioned properly, that is). The whole album sounds better and better the more you turn it up and up, the bass filling out and thumping you, the intricacies of the sound enveloping you and overwhelming you; it coaxes you towards the volume knob until you’re making the entire house pulse. Which is the way it should be. It’s addictive.
Lyrically Danny has said explicitly that this is about post-traumatic stress disorder, which he suffered with, by all accounts quite horrifically, in his early 20s; it’s pretty unforgiving. It also borrows a line from an ancient, never-officially-released Embrace tune called “Say It With Bombs”; specifically the bit about “the birds eat the bees”. Which is weird and cyclical and kind of awesome in terms of contributing to the strange, eternal, internal narrative of this band, and adds weight to the suggestion that they’ve come full-circle.
I’m not sure what to say about “The Devil Looks After His Own”, because it’s just a really good, bitter pop song, loaded with tune and given a fabulous arrangement. I can’t really ascribe any semiotic or narrative analysis to it, it doesn’t change the paradigm of the band in the way “Protection”, “Quarters”, or “Self Attack Mechanism” do, it doesn’t feel like a ‘significant’ moment in their career; it’s just a great song, done incredibly well. Which is amazingly refreshing, and, in the midst of a paradigm-shifting album, probably a blessed relief.
Danny spits (almost literally at points; I’ve never heard him sound quite so angry as he does towards the end) fantastic lyrical epithets all over the place, about how “the winner of the rat race is still a rat”, and “the web you weave unravels itself”; if it’s about anything specific, it might be the way the band have been treated over the years, the plans people hatched for them, and how they’ve somehow made it through the bullshit; but of course, like any song, it’s about what you, the listener, interpret it as being about. There’s something metronomic in the triangulated drums and the mechanical, chugging rhythm guitar (which could almost be a bit early-PJ Harvey, another pre-record-deal influence). It’s obviously Embrace but I can’t find an analogue for it elsewhere in their discography; this pleases me.
Across the entire record everything feels ramped-up a notch (or several) musically; arrangements feel more creative across the board, either subtly (the guitar in “At Once”) or radically so (all of “Quarters”). Mike and Steve in particular seem almost like a different rhythm section; the way the drums evolve through “Refugees” and the way the bass shifts across “In The End” are totally unlike anything they’ve played before. Some might find it initially difficult to tell how Mickey’s contribution has altered, because the sound palette he’s working with is so radically different to before, but the synthesizer craziness he’s responsible for is by far the most seismic change on show. It’s not that Embrace have made a synth pop record; it’s that they’ve practically retooled their entire sonic armory, from individual timbres to mixing techniques to the thrillingly dynamic approach to mastering, while keeping hold of the emotional territory and songwriting focus they’ve always held dear.
I like to think I can second-guess what an Embrace song will sound like before I’ve heard it, based on running time, title, and sequencing; “this is a delicate moment”; “this is a rocker”; “this is an experiment”. Sometimes I’m right; probably less often than I’d like to think, though. I was sort of both very right and very wrong with the last track here. Structurally “A Thief On My Island” is similar to “Out Of Nothing”, but it smashes it in the brutality and dynamics stakes. I’d argue that it’s melodically richer and more personal lyrically, too; a lot of the lyrics across the album repeat themes and ideas and motifs from earlier in their career, as if things have been tiptoed around before and are now being fully realised and admitted to.
At one point during the creation process for this record Danny or Rik posted something, somewhere, about being influenced by dubstep, which seemed like a red herring or misdirection or else some horrific attempt at being contemporary; with hindsight the second half of this song is probably the result of that, but it’s not about producing a track that people can (not) dance to at a dubstep night somewhere in Bristol – it’s about saying “here is a sound; what can we do with it to our own ends?” And the answer to that question is ‘techno Swans’. Halfway through listening to “…Thief…” for the first time I thought to myself “well, it’s pretty intense and dramatic, but it’s not exactly Swans, is it?” And then, for the final three minutes, it went techno Swans; a bludgeoning, incredibly deep, repeated electronic noise-chord hammered over and over again like an obscene tectonic movement shaking buildings apart. Or at least I think it did; I don’t quite trust myself with this band, with being able to discern between what’s actually happening and what I want to happen. Many listens in, in many contexts, I think the two are very close.
This album has finally calcified what I always thought Embrace could be; what they ought to be. Some people still won’t get it, and that’s fine. Their music doesn’t usually lend itself to ‘aesthetic contemplation’ the way that some acts do, but I’ve never heard Sonic Youth, say, or any ‘noise’ act, take something so bludgeoning and use it to emotional ends the way Embrace do at the end of “…Thief…” or, a decade ago, “Out Of Nothing”; to insert that chaos, both sonic and emotional, into a pop song. And pop songs is what they do – bold melodies, big hooks, enormous choruses, all those early brass fanfares and ba-ba-ba backing vocals, all that communality. They’ve always been unashamedly populist.
Very early on Embrace were accused of having a Thatcherite work ethic, as if working hard to produce something of quality for consumption by anyone and everyone wasn’t actually a socialist work ethic, as if the communal nature of their music wasn’t socialist through and through, as if Danny hadn’t worked on a building site with his dad while he was writing the songs that would form their debut album, as if they weren’t from mill towns in Yorkshire that Thatcher tried to destroy. Singing to yourself might be beautiful and rewarding but it’s also kind of selfish in many ways, and shared emotional experiences are unbelievably profound; more and more as I get older I’m finding myself overwhelmed by large crowds of people and shared cultural experiences – the Olympics, public demonstrations against the government – and I’m naturally exclusionary by instinct in many ways. To me, Embrace’s music somehow, sometimes captures that feeling and ties it to something that’s also incredibly isolating, far more so than any of the people who’ve emerged in their wake and (in some ways) eclipsed them. I think a big part of this is because the man delivering the words atop most of these emotions is a weirdo hiding in plain sight; simultaneously garrulous and uncomfortably intense.
It’s about sublimation within a crowd, loss of sense of self whilst, at the very same time, feeling something deeply personal and emotional. It’s that eternal pang of pop music, or rock music, or dance music, or soul music, or whatever you want to call it; that thrill of movement and emotion and connection and alienation all at once, joy at sadness and sadness at joy; recalling memories that aren’t actually yours because someone else can channel them, somehow, right into you. We don’t have a word for it. It’s liking a piece of music, or art, or culture, or whatever, not because it says anything about you, but because it does something to you, whether you like it or not. And I like this a lot.