Scotland’s Idlewild have shown great promise over the past six years, but although they’ve flirted with greatness in the past, it’s never quite happened for them. After their excellent breakthrough disc 100 Broken Windows, their third album, 2002’s affable The Remote Part, aimed high, an ambitious blend of soaring songs made for arenas, tinged with touches of British post punk and American emo, and while songs like “American English” and “You Held the World in Your Arms” were well-suited for Top of the Pops audiences in the UK, neither single clicked at all Stateside. Aside from a brief stint opening for Pearl Jam, the band never got a real push from their label, and they were left to tour the continent in relative obscurity. It’s one thing to pull off a grand, majestic pop rock tune successfully on record, but it’s another to be forced to perform said song in front of a sparse crowd at a rib joint in the American South. Since The Remote Part came out, the post punk revival has exploded, with Franz Ferdinand becoming the de rigeur Scottish band, and The Killers succeeding where Idlewild stumbled. Not one to fade away and have their discography become little more than a curiosity in used CD stores, Idlewild are back, if only to play catch-up with the rest of the pop rock world.
If The Remote Part was grandiose, Warnings/Promises is humble. The production is much cozier, arrangements are more rustic, the melodies are gentler, harmony vocals are used more than before, and overall, the band sounds the most relaxed they’ve ever been. Idlewild’s first album in three years might come as a shock to many of those who are familiar with the band; after all, when a young rock band decides to settle down and make a more “adult” album, it usually spells disaster (see Travis’s well-meaning, but flawed 12 Memories), but the more Warnings/Promises settles into your system, the less you hate it. It might not have been the direction fans have been expecting, and have set themselves up for a backlash from many critics, but despite the fact that it’s becoming clear they may never top 100 Broken Windows or “American English”, much of this album isn’t bad at all.
At its best, the new album is as beguiling as Teenage Fanclub’s recent effort Man-Made. At its worst, it’s as turgid as R.E.M.‘s most recent snoozer. Warnings/Promises works best when the band focuses on the acoustic-tinged arrangements, and opening cut “Love Steals Us From Tomorrow” sets the tone immediately; although distorted guitars are prominent, they are now overshadowed by the rich, layered vocals and pedal steel accents. Both the lively “As If I Hadn’t Slept” and the understated ballad “Not Just Sometimes But Always” nick a few tricks from the Teenage Fanclub book, from the obvious Big Star homages to the gentle, three-part harmonies. And speaking of harmonies, they dominate “I Understand It” to the point where you start thinking of Crosby, Stills and Nash. The tasteful “Welcome Home” is arguably the most effective song of the lot, not adding anything original, mind you, but just doing the acoustic/electric Wilco shtick nicely. “Disconnected” and “El Capitan” blatantly steal from the R.E.M. of recent years, but the tunes work surprisingly well, at least moreso than anything R.E.M. has done recently.
When the guitars are turned up, the album starts to become tiresome. The clunky “I Want a Warning” and the tiresome “Too Long Awake” awkwardly attempt to duplicate the band’s early sound, with limp results. The only purpose “The Space Between All Things” seems to have is for guitarist Rod Jones to show off his chops, as his overbearing guitar squalls and squeals drown out what might have been an otherwise good song.
Although singer Roddy Woomble seems to be a rather literate guy, citing Norman Mailer as his inspiration to live in New York, and quoting Richard Brautigan in the album sleeve, his own lyrics have always seemed to teeter on the brink of emo self-parody, and there’s no shortage of stinkers here (“By the harbor I harbor the strangest memories”). Like The Remote Part, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but for all its flaws, Warnings/Promises does have a dignified air about it, and the fact that Idlewild didn’t try to pander to the post punk crowd, concentrating on good song craft instead, is admirable.