Pile up every heartsick love letter you’ve ever written, every tear-stained journal page, every ex’s photograph you’ve ever ripped up and taped back together. In this collection, you’ll be confronted with a portrait of your most private, emotive moments. There, in tatters and ruins, will be the physical manifestation of your unsullied self—your most naked, your most alone, and your most vulnerable essence.
This nadir is a fruitful one for Danny and Richard McNamara, the brothers who form the bleeding heart of English band Embrace. Often scorned by critics and British indie connoisseurs who assert that their signature emotional pop borders on the pathetic, they have still sallied forth with the kind of releases that spawn the most devoted of fan bases. Their 1998 debut, The Good Will Out, was an earnest trip into how sad sad could be, with enough pensive melodies to salve an adolescence’s worth of emotional devastation. That release also carried a few high-energy, arena-style Britrock anthems; while they earned the group some Oasis and Verve comparisons, they mostly sat askew on the otherwise maudlin landscape. Let’s just say it—even despite attempts on their sophomore outing, Drawn From Memory, Embrace would never be remembered for their ability to bring down the house.
But since then, they’ve chewed away the fat, and Embrace 2001 are intent upon exposing the raw bone and nerve. The result is their third release, If You’ve Never Been, an album that centers on what the group knows best—the contemplative, passionate, mid-tempo numbers that never lose their poignancy.
This intention is declared immediately by “It’s Over”, the cold and despondent first track. It begins with a quiet, otherwordly synthesized noise, which grows louder across two bars before being joined by guitar, bass and vibraphone. Danny McNamara then begins his hopeless crooning: “Drag yourself over the coals / I know you’re sorry to go / But when all you can do is say so / I know it’s over”. If that’s not like a punch in the gut, I don’t know what is. The song has no chorus, just verses that burrow in deep before opening up into grand, high-flying instrumental bars. And in their wretched glory, those are almost more upsetting than the lyrics, McNamara’s quiet sob piling onto wide guitar playing that’s somewhere between frenzy, depression and relief.
But Embrace rarely set out to overwhelm. More of the numbers are matter-of-fact odes, jeweled with plain yet heartbreaking lines. The much warmer second track, “I Hope You’re Happy Now”, is the kind of number that might not move you without a careful listen. But its simple poetry will echo to your very core: “I’m sick of keeping track of all their lies / For all my crimes I’ve paid my due / And they shoot me down for looking at the view”. The same goes for the rolling, diaphanous “Many Will Learn”, with lines like “You’re honest as a car wreck”, or “You left me as living made sense”. In fact, only one track, “If You’ve Never Been in Love with Anything”, fails to properly ride this emotional tide. It’s a big and clumsy, draped with ridiculous harmonies and horn/keyboard combos that sound like they belong at the carnival. Thankfully, it’s a lone wolf on an otherwise calm, thoughtful record.
Saying you’re an Embrace fan can honestly be a little embarrassing. It’s as telling as that “Every Day Is Like Sunday” single on repeat in your stereo, or saying you stayed home Friday night to watch Say Anything on HBO. But it also signals your appreciation of the touching story, the guileless beauty of unaffected guitars, the way a human voice bends over notes slightly out of its range. Listen to Embrace with pride, because they’re the band that will be there for you when you feel small, when you need music most. Heed Danny McNamara’s advice in “It’s Gonna Take Time”: “No I won’t feel ashamed / if nothing feels right”. Because simply, magnificently, If You’ve Never Been is about just a few things: the subtlety of a line, the ease of rhyme, and the frailty of human experience.