With “French Navy”, Camera Obscura came closest to their shots fired. For a band so stuck on the should’ve-beens and able to debase them with witty, dismissive comebacks, “French Navy” was startled as well as startling. Beguiled by a love story with tantalising beginnings – it sounds like it happened at an improv class, Tracyanne Campbell setting up weeks in dusty libraries and sailor mates – it became the first time I heard Camera Obscura telling their story as seriously as they did romantically. Its tone is mesmerised, entranced by romantic gestures rather than despairing of them; like that, it’s a single of real intent for an album of Sweeping Statement, asserted with hyperbole but genuinely felt, its flourishing string arrangements positing melodrama as a reality. Compared to the charm and whimsy of so many Camera Obscura’s songs, twee by design, immaculately made pop music, it’s a wholly serious, slightly unhinged pop song with a cinematic scope that boldly flops. Campbell’s lyrics are so often calculated jokes and ironic riddles, but everything that happens on “French Navy” is a bit of story: “you with your dietary restriction / said you loved me with a lot of conviction,” she sings, the song’s desperate tone slightly out of her control, even with her funny rejoinders at her side.
My Maudlin Career followed suit in a lot of ways: it wasn’t constantly as plaintive and sincere, but it seemed to gain respect for hyperbole. Struggling romance was amplified rather than thrown away, and so Campbell sang “I would trade my mother to hear you sing” with a smile but also as a plea. The album had a fitting overture, one that said this band were ever themselves, but this time they were hauling up with nothing more than that. Four years later, Desire Lines begins with its own overture, but unlike the aching of “French Navy”, it’s a deception. “Intro” is a short, thirty-second blast of overture, predicating the album on meditative string arrangements that cease with near-ambience akin to Stars of the Lid, before swelling into an ominous finale. It’s something of an iconoclastic move for a band who’ve never been iconoclastic; the closest they’ve been to that is surprised. What the totally unrelated “Intro” tells me is that Camera Obscura are in control, becalmed about what’s to come on this particular album of stories.
Despite its intentioned lead-in, Desire Lines is a collection of tranquil, steadily-paced songs, a late-night restatement of Underachievers Please Try Harder and Let’s Get Out Of This Country. “Intro” dissolves into the shimmering “This Is Love (Feels Alright)”, which is content to take it slow, its pace dictated by intermitting guitar chords and a sturdy, half-awake drumbeat. It’s a trendsetter for the album, which has a reinforcing pattern of notable introductory phrases leading to a quieter middle-ground. “William’s Heart” is ushered in with silky guitar riff that all but disappears in the wake of Campbell’s story about her eponymous William. This structure repeats on the affable “New Year’s Resolution”, another song fired up by a brief guitar solo, which relies on embellishing harmonies in its chorus to turn its own tricks. Even by their standards, Desire Lines is overbearingly pleasant, a collection of beautiful but rarely pulsating songs. It’s an album of predictably astounding vocal harmonies, but not of intriguing stories or even the amusing refutations of them.
Instead, Desire Lines carries a sense of lethargy, its conversations sounding overtired. “Oh William, where have you gone?”, the question on Campbell’s mind on “William’s Heart”, is sung as wearily as it is gorgeously. There’s no coy respite for William, and no particular answer, either. Desire Lines is Camera Obscura tiredly returning to pure twee pop, made with Camera Obscura’s exponentially increasing prowess for arrangements, and while that’s impressive, it ends up lying in the middle-ground. This isn’t to say Campbell isn’t content with the kind of songs she’s writing here, just that what she writes about isn’t necessarily exhilarating, nor does it need that deceit: the countrified finale and title track is proof enough of that, its travelogue story meandering like a wandering walk, the drums ruffling underneath recalling Wilco’s equally unflustered “Sky Blue Sky”. The song ends at half-weight of itself, which is a fair conclusion of the album, a calm, contended suppression of a saccharine impulse.
The best songs on Desire Lines are the ones that carry Camera Obscura out of this world. “I Missed Your Party” is the album’s most immediate earworm, playing with the explained away sarcasm of Camera Obscura’s greatest songs. “I’m genuinely sorry,” Campbell assures, but the notes of drama that exist on the song are gleeful, more pantomimic than theatrical; the trumpets blare like their part is in a big band, while the song’s twinkling guitar backdrop rollicks through Campbell’s list of shortcomings, teasing them out with the song’s slow, casual tempo. “I’m gonna get through walls with men, I’m gonna be in bed by ten,” she sings, turning the song around on herself to aggrandize it. “I Missed Your Party” is indelibly catchy, with no obvious hook clarifying its choruses – it’s in the build of the song to its orchestral, sparingly but frantically drummed centrepiece, but also in its funny half-promises, that it becomes such a perfect, undefined pop song. There’s also “Do It Again”, a thudding and rapid rock song that doesn’t abandon its original fiery phrases, instead running with them until there’s no energy left, brushing over its choruses as if the song is only contained in excitable little nuances, its exciting guitar riffs and Campbell’s revitalising and accusing hum of “You / you, you’re walking around.” These two songs don’t necessarily belong to Desire Lines, one a lot more interactive and the other more fleeting than the placid ones wrapped into the record.
That’s no big surprise: Campbell doesn’t have the feeling of “French Navy” inside of her anymore, and four years on, her songs aren’t about the solace of romance or even the thrill of it. Instead, Desire Lines is a silver lining record, one that isn’t particularly compelling (especially relative to My Maudlin Career, which felt like new emotional territory for the band), but is impressively maintained. While “Intro” is little more than a prankish red herring for the album it entails, it remains a testament to Camera Obscura’s knack for tight construction, and their unwavering diligence in making a pop song. “I Missed Your Party” is enough to remind me of the band who can have one foot on the ground and the other rising kicked into the air, its thrilling exaggerations filtered through song, but its lessons ultimately learned as everyday. The rest of Desire Lines is a story with two feet on the ground, and after all this time, it says that maybe nothing is all that shocking if you get a hold of yourself.