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Camera Obscura recorded their 5th album Desire Lines in December of 2012 when they decamped to Portland to work with GRAMMY nominated producer Tucker Martine (R.E.M., Spoon, My Morning Jacket) and pleased with the progress they made there, they returned a month later to finish it. "Working in the US with southern gentleman Tucker Martine was a positive experience. We were also delighted to have Neko Case and Jim James sing on the record too. What a treat."
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Listening to this album in one sitting is recommended as the songs work together to paint a picture of deep emotion and longing without ever being too sad, as if a decade of heartbreak for a twenty-something gave way to emotional and personal stability and with it the wisdom that comes from those tumultuous years. It's the musical equivalent of a retrospective evening soaked in red wine.
Take the track length for The National's past few albums. Alligator's 13 songs made for an incredibly compelling listen, and Boxer's 12 were perfect. Then High Violet came in at 11, and my mathematical mind convinced me these awesome musicians were running out of music, on the verge of downgrading to EPs and compilation singles before running out of steam entirely. Then when Trouble Will Find Me was announced at 13 tracks, I worried they'd abandoned concision for sprawl. (This isn't the first time I've read so much into so little--take album art and titles. High Violet didn't have a predominantly black cover like its predecessors, and didn't follow the logical Alligator-Boxer-C????? progression I'd expected, so I'd worried that'd be their first departure from a trajectory of ascending awesomeness.) These things aren't entirely insignificant. The energetic colorful squiggles of the sculpture on High Violet's cover announced a charged and chaotic album whose ideas burst forth in several interesting directions, while Trouble's black-and-white mirror image of the top of a woman's head heralded a more monochromatic and precise work.
Fortunately, that doesn't mean boring. In fact, like its immediate predecessors, this album's the opposite--there's a denseness and a richness and an intricacy that rewards multiple listens, and even requires them, because you can't take it all in immediately.
Their music reminds me of the ocean. There's a common feel to all of it, but also an incredible variety, and an intense level of detail to the patterns. More importantly, once you've experienced it, you might think you don't need it any more, but something pulls you back. (Like a lot of my favorite music, I'm often perplexed and/or underwhelmed on first listen. Then I give it another go, just to see if I've missed something. And before long, the songs I thought I didn't like are stuck in my head, and I'm hunting down my fellow Nationalists to jabber excitedly about this lyric or that string segment or the other horn arrangement, the one that sounds like nothing you've ever heard before.) You go to the beach as a kid and it seems OK, but you feel like you can take it or leave it. And the next thing you know, you're an adult buying oceanfront property.
Still, this is an album with the rough edges removed, the polished work of pros who have gotten incredibly good at what they do, but who might have also explored all the corners of their sound and are now, for lack of anything better to do, going back and polishing the middle. Or (to keep things nautical) it's, in the words of musicOMH's Andrew Burgess, "A collection of waves that never break." This is a band that's steering away from the rocks and the shoals, and one sometimes misses the crashing intensity of, say, Alligator's "Abel" or "Mr. November," or High Violet's "Terrible Love."
I'm glad they're also avoiding the safety of harbor. For all the energy in its music, High Violet's lyrics offered scenes of uneasy domesticity: fearful parenting, and difficult but permanent relationships. Whereas here, the music's calmer, but the lyrics are more intense, full of angst and self-loathing and confessional recrimination. "Everything I love is out to sea," he offers on "Don't Swallow the Cap," and it seems apropos for the album as a whole; one gets the sense he loves the drama and the chaos, and is afraid of the domesticated life sketched out on High Violet. Instead, he's riding out his own personal rough weather on the high seas, on the gray day after a big storm. It's not exhilarating, but it's compelling--and those of us who signed up for this trip a while ago want to see how long the voyage can last.