Idlewild: The Collection

[21 June 2010]

By Matt James

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true / Or is it something worse”—Bruce Springsteen.

There was a time in the early ‘90s when everyone, literally everyone, was betting on Scotland’s Idlewild becoming “The Next REM”. People re-mortgaged their mansions, pawned their jewelery, pets and relatives. It was a sure thing. Even Rolling Stone trailed the scent. The band was set to garner MTV awards and shared cocktails with Neil Young. Unfortunately for the group, though, “The Next REM” tag didn’t happen, and the world walked away. So who could blame Idlewild for taking their ball and going home?

The Collection (heroically bland title) captures most of the Idlewild tale from rags to riches to rags. From their late ‘90s bratty college rock shoots to their comfortable shoes ‘n’ chin stroking roots, the gang’s all here. Listening from a distance, it’s clear the two faces of the Idlewild monster were always there brawling like alley cats. In one corner sat the devoted Sonic Youth punk kitty, and in the other stood the ‘sophisticat’ feline with a penchant for REM-flavoured catnip. I’m not giving the ending away, but it’s no surprise the latter comes out of this looking like the best of the two, purring contently.

The talent for cracking pop tunes was always there, looking for a way out. The schizo angular awkwardness of early single “When I Argue I See Shapes” twists and turns as its melodic sunshine verses try to outsmart the snotty anarchic chorus taunting, “I laugh at your conversational skills”. Ditto for “Roseability”. Slinking ‘round its manor like Morrissey, Gertrude Stein says “That’s not enough / They can’t teach you what you don’t already know” before bowing to a furious Thurston Moore buzz-saw assault. “Actually It’s Darkness” takes a further step into their future—a battle of the brain and the brawn.

Notorious as youths for being a hurricane live act (“The broken violent” indeed), their spice now seems terribly formulaic and dated. Ingredients? The magic ‘91 game of loud-quiet-loud. Or if you’re feeling saucy, quiet-loud-quiet. “Everyone Says You’re So Fragile” feels like memories of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Sultans of Ping (ask your Dad) kept behind locked doors. The sound of sweaty indie discos, unwashed propeller hair, cheap cider and lost shoes. “Who Am I? / Where Am I?” barks Roddy Woomble convincingly. The worst culprit is “Rusty”, five cruel minutes of craptastic, miserablist garage rock. “You look worn out” it yelps knowingly. Though these two crimes are buried, Goodfellas style, in the middle of the record, we can still hear them you know! Surprisingly, the sparky “Idea Track”, once beloved, now feels a bit itchy and daft. Despite its insane lyrics (imaginary scribblings from the asylum “Dear Hugh Miller…”) and lovely cello collapse, I’m stamping it “Return to Sender”. Sorry guys. I’m popping the cheeky B-Side “No Generation” in the envelope too. What were you thinking?

By 2002’s The Remote Part, Idlewild were ready to wrestle with “the big boys”. Adieu Indie Disco! Bonjour The Big Music! In other words, they got Man Sized. “Modern Way of Letting Go” and “In Remote Part” were crafted songwriting which Ver Kidz and bearded adults could enjoy. These kitties had glossy coats. Soft fur AND claws. The rush, the riffs, the ambition, the ability. Just pile up the platinum in the hall please. Similarly fab are the pickings from 2005’s Warnings / Promises. The rousing “Love Steals Us From Loneliness” spins like a lost jukebox 45, hiding its pining “Are you lonely yet?” lament. Here, you can see definitely see a band getting better and stronger. “Too Long Awake” is sophisticated, stirring stuff (save the contrary novelty ending), “Together we’re younger than you are / Forever you’re older than we are together” and the beautiful “El Capitan” proved Idlewild had become a better REM than REM. That said, there was trouble brewing with lines like “I’ll climb El Capitan / And jump off to cheers from the crowd”.  and later songs that are tinged with introspection, regret and frustration.

The crowning glory, though, is “American English”. Those opening notes are enough to send arctic monkeys down your spine and spark a forest fire of nostalgia. It’s Idlewild’s backstage pass to the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, their echo in eternity. It’s the cold realization that dreams are just dreams. Untouchable dreams, actually, that suggest the world outside your window is just a cheap, Hollywood set—a world of actors, phonies. “The good songs weren’t written for you / They’ll never be about you / You’ll find what you find when you find there’s nothing” is a line that screams a slap across the face that feels like a kiss.

Despite being compiled by a blind mute—the sequencing is baffling and their biggest hit is AWOL—The Collection is easily recommended. Not just to REM fans who’ve lost their religion, either. Idlewild are ripe for rediscovery and, if anything, the latter material suggests it’s not over yet. They fell beyond their initial promise and, despite not lining their mantelpieces with MTV moon men or dating Courtney Love, they’ve left behind some real treasures. Upon reflection and with closer inspection of Woomble’s curious, cryptic lyrics, this may have even been their plan all along—“I’m hoping they don’t include me / At least I’m in good company”.

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