I’ve written this review five times, trying to figure out why I’m the only critic I know who still likes Gomez. I honestly can’t figure it out; the band is interested in every kind of music under the sun, weaving psychedelic rock and country and Brit-pop and skiffle and r&b and blues into its songs, and has three intelligent (and very different) songwriters who riff on everything from politics and love, to songwriting and alienation… and they haven’t gotten the time of day since their debut album won the Mercury Music Prize in 1998.
I have theories about why this has happened, but they are boring and wrong. I know a lot of fashionable and eminent writers who just think Gomez sucks, and on the other side it’s just me, and the truth. So when I say that this is a really great album, take it with a grain of salt—but know that I’m right and that everyone who disagrees is wrong.
I don’t know if How We Operate is Gomez’s best album, but I don’t really keep score like that. I know that it features 12 tricky metamorphic songs, many of which I haven’t figured out fully yet after two or three weeks of listening, and I know that a couple of them have made me do my dorky white-guy dance, and a couple more have made me laugh, and that one particular song has touched my heart like nothing else this year.
This is probably the rootsiest record they’ve made, which is not going to win them many adherents in the “music must be shiny, new, and squelchy” club. Folky guitars and something that sounds like a banjo touch the deceptively simple “See the World”, bringing the sky-high lyrics (“You seem like a soldier / Who’s lost his composure”, not their best couplet) back down to earth. The slide guitar that dominates the first half of “Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol” turns muscular in its metallic second half, when they repeat (for whatever reason), “I don’t know why I’m glowing”.
The reason for this Americana kick can be seen in “Charley Patton Songs”. Singer Ian Ball uses his devotion to an obscure American blues legend as a metaphor for everything he’s ever wanted: “I’ve spent a lifetime / Tryin’ to decipher / Charley Patton songs / I don’t know why I bother / Even if I think it’s right / It always comes out wrong”. As the song continues, and Ball sings longingly of all the American places he’s been searching for insight about these songs (read: life itself), it all becomes clear: Gomez is in love with the weird idea of America, the strange impossibly spacious place where most of their favorite music came from. (Dag, no wonder all the British magazines gave up on them.)
And I don’t mind at all that Gomez is amassing a new following in the “jam-band” circle, not when it means longer and looser versions of great songs like “All Too Much”, an alt.country- and Dinosaur Jr.-flavored slowburner with a great anguished vocal by Ben Ottewell. “Hamoa Beach”, another in a long list of Gomez skiffle songs, keeps unfolding into strange alleys as it passes along wisdom for the ages, or at least for right now: “I’m no philosopher / I am no poet / I’m just trying to help you out / Don’t let it fool you like it nearly fooled me / Fear: don’t let it take you like it nearly took me”. And most of the horribly-titled “Woman! Man!” uses dark twisty Texan guitars and reggae cadences, and will probably turn into a 15-minute freakout onstage before modulating back to the bouncy chorus.
Which is not to say that this whole record breaks new ground. “Tear Your Love Apart” is all driven by heavy sub-Two-Tone syncopation, just like half of Split the Difference—only the garage-rock Farfisa sound is new. And, just like always, there is a song that seems to be exclusively about Gomez’s refusal to give their listeners personal details about their lives; this time, it’s called “Cry on Demand”, and it’s ostensibly about a guy who’s screwed up his relationship by having one off with someone in Las Vegas. But it’s pretty hard to take it seriously, with all the tempo shifts and the sections that juxtapose stinging guitars with an annoying riff for the human whistle. And when they croon, “Sometimes I wish I could cry on demand / Boo hoo, boo hoo”, it’s pretty clear that they are telling us, just like they did in “78 Stone Wobble” and “Blue Moon Rising” and “These 3 Sins”, that we should stay away from trying to identify with their personal lives. I have a whole theory about this impulse in Gomez, which Bertolt Brecht called the V-effekt, but I’ll spare you.
Of course, Gomez always comes up with something that hits on a gut level. Here, it is called “Girlshapedlovedrug”, and it is one of the most ebullient and satisfying love songs ever recorded, especially since it describes how our narrator is hypnotized by a woman with violent mood swings and a bad attitude. Why does he still love her? It’s a mystery even to him, but he realizes the contradiction: “Don’t ask me whyyyyy / The girl-shaped love drug messes with my mind”. It’s perfect and soul-searing because it’s true, and because he’s going to hell with her but he doesn’t care, and because its chord-changes and three-part harmonies will melt your heart at 50 yards.
Yeah, it’s a rave review of a Gomez record from me. Big surprise. It’d be nice if some of you would join in, but I don’t expect that to happen for a few years. When it does, though, and everyone suddenly realizes “Holy shit, have they been out there being so great for so long?” remember ol’ Uncle Matt.
// Notes from the Road
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