Idlewild: The Sanctuary Years
It’s happened tens of times: A band releases an acclaimed, solid, yet overhyped album early in its career and spends years stumbling around amidst diminished commercial and critical success, as if trying to convince itself that it was worth all the hype in the first place. It re-hires the producer(s) who helped deliver the initial glory, in hopes of a belated repeat—and as a nod to dedicated fans who are finally losing patience with the lost direction. Claiming that it’s “by choice” or a “mutual decision”, the band leaves its major label for self-release or an indie. Much but not all of the time, that indie is Sanctuary. Five albums and nearly a decade in, this is exactly the situation in which Idlewild finds itself.
In the United States, at least, Idlewild’s sophomore release, 100 Broken Windows, was singled out by Capitol for the kind of success Sony had enjoyed with Travis’ The Man Who. Both albums had been championed by the American music press, from Spin to The Big Takeover, while they were still UK imports. In the pre-blog age, that kind of ink held enough power to generate genuine buzz. When Windows finally hit the shops in 2001, it was, briefly, ubiquitous. No small factor in that was Capitol’s decision to make the album one of the first “low introductory price” CDs, meaning that it could be found for under $10 at Best Buy. This controversial tactic has helped squeeze out big sales for everyone from Everlast (remember him?) to Keane. But it didn’t work for Idlewild.
100 Broken Windows had a couple things going against it commercially in the States. For one thing, a proud, often bombastic Scottish band who mixed Smiths-style candidness with the noise of late-punks like the Skids wasn’t going to just slip into American alternative radio and connect with Joe Undergrad. And, really, Windows had some strong songs, but only a couple of them even threatened to be remembered the next day, much less the next year. Idlewild could write songs; they had a strong, confident sound; and, in Roddy Woomble, an intelligent, earnest frontman. Yet they just didn’t click, didn’t command your attention like you hoped they would after reading all that press.
The band softened and matured its sound on 2002’s The Remote Part, and were rewarded with a critical and commercial hit in the UK. But, again, they failed to leave a lasting impression, and 2005’s Warnings/Promises, widely regarded as a transparent attempt at the newly-emofied American market, didn’t help matters, hence the inevitable split with Capitol.
It’s safe to say that, for Idlewild and its diehard fans, there’s a lot riding on Make Another World, a fact the album’s very title seems to acknowledge. And, though it’s not the world-beater they’ve seemingly always wanted to make, it’s arguably their most consistent album to date, and good enough to warrant them sticking around.
Not surprisingly for a band at such a crossroads, Make Another World tries on several different sounds and approaches. Once again working with Dave Eringa, who produced some of their best early material, Idlewild attempt to placate fans who thought they had gone soft, maybe reminding themselves of their initial strength in the process, with an ear to current fashion as well. Somewhat ironically, the only real weak tracks here are harder ones—and the true standout is a slowie.
The opening salvo of “In Competition for the Worst Time” and “Everything (As It Moves)”, two of Idlewild’s best chest-thumpers ever, makes it clear that the band can still travel the punky side of the road, even as “If It Takes You Home” and “A Ghost in the Arcade” are more clunky, belabored attempts to thrash out. “You and I Are Both Away”, with its lovely sing-along chorus, finds a happy middle (but not middle of the road) ground, while the disco-driven first single “No Emotion” takes belated advantage of the current trend toward all things post-punk/new wave/‘80s—and works so well you wonder why Woomble & Company hadn’t thought of it before.
Where Idlewild will surely be accused of going MOR, though, are the pair of ultra-earnest, widescreen ballads on which Woomble—whose nasal voice and somersaulting delivery usually make him come across as a Morrissey variation—sounds more than ever like fellow Scotsman Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol. But before you go tisking, realize that Idlewild do the “song for a generation” thing much more convincingly than the Patrol. For one thing, there’s no chime of ringing cash registers in the background. Also, Woomble is a much better lyricist than most everyone else playing this game. On the title track, similar in its epic feel to New Order’s “Waiting for the Siren’s Call”, Woomble expresses his frustration with the Bush/Blair state of things with the eloquent call to “Let your tears fall in the shape / Of every one of the American states”, rather than relying on predictable bile. The stark, stunning “Future Works” underscores Woomble’s quotable observation that “You can steal what you love / But you can’t love what you steal” with mournful horns, marking a new high point of artistry for this band.
At ten songs and just 35 minutes, Make Another World puts its weaker songs into sharp focus, but the best songs and the band’s determination keep winning you over. Idlewild may still not be sure exactly what it wants to be—the toughest kid on the indie block, or the next U2—but at least Make Another World rules “has-beens” out of the equation.
// Notes from the Road
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