Camera Obscura 2024
Photo: Robert Perry / Pitch Perfect PR

Camera Obscura Find That Life Goes On No Matter the Direction

Earlier, Camera Obscura contrasted their mocking pessimism of adult life with innocence. The group may still be twee, but their sneer has become more of a frown.

Look to the East, Look to the West
Camera Obscura
4AD / Merge
3 May 2024

It has been over ten years since the Scottish band Camera Obscura released a studio album. They were once considered the Rolling Stones to Belle and Sebastian’s Beatles when twee music was the most exciting movement in alternative rock. Camera Obscura took a hiatus after keyboardist Carey Lander died of cancer in 2015. The remaining members played a few gigs and engaged in side projects, but between life events and the changing times—especially during the COVID years—Camera Obscura was as illusory as the images from the device from which the group took its name.

Camera obscura refers to what happens when one puts a pinhole in a wall of a black room. The light from outside projects an upside-down image on the opposite wall. The term is Latin for the dark chamber, which is an appropriate description of the group’s sound (dark chamber pop). Camera Obscura’s music exuded a melancholy reserve mixed with its surface accessibility. Wonderful albums such as Let’s Get Out of this Country (2006) and My Maudlin Career (2009) were celebrated for their stately sadness and beauty as well as their hooks.

Camera Obscura’s new album, Look to the East, Look to the West, follows very much in the tradition of their earlier records. That’s not a surprise, considering it was produced by Jari Haapalainen, who fashioned the two previously mentioned classic discs. The instrumental portions move to a steady beat at a moderate tempo. Singer Tracyanne Campbell’s ethereal vocals decoratively lay atop the music. She often seems emotionally distant from the material, as if Campbell is thinking more than feeling. Her voice has always been central to Camera Obscura’s sound. She comes off as present but no longer passionate.

That serves the band well on tracks such as “Liberty Print” and “The Night Lights”, when Campbell croons about being aloof and feeling weak. She successfully captures the mood of apathy caused by being afraid to feel. Campell wrote all the songs, with the exception of “We’re Going to Make It in a Man’s World”, which was co-written by her and new band member Donna Maciocia (keys and vocals).  As a whole, Campbell’s lyrics come off as sophisticated, if a bit cynical. In earlier albums, Camera Obscura contrasted their mocking pessimism of adult life with innocence. The group may still be twee, but their sneer has become more of a frown.

“Pop goes pop I want to burst its bubble / Hearts like ours will get us in trouble,” Campbell sings. There was a time in Camera Obscura’s past when getting in trouble was the point. It meant one was feeling deeply regardless of the price one had to pay. Now, the band acknowledge hard times and death, and maybe the best moments are all in the past. Once love was a big deal, now it is just a memory.

“In a strange kind of way / Life it goes on and on,” Campbell sings over a lullaby-esque melody. The best one can hope for is to be able to move forward. Fans of Camera Obscura will enjoy basking in the old familiar sounds. Band members Kenny McKeeve (guitar and vocals), Gavin Dunbar (bass), and Lee Thomson (drums and percussion) sound very much the same. They remain fairly anonymous on the new record with no standout solos, but that was always the case. Guest performers, such as Tim Davidson on pedal steel on the country ballad “Big Love” or Annie McLeod on Cor anglais and oboe, the title track, are more identifiable. One’s appreciation of Look to the East, Look to the West depends mostly on their appreciation of Campbell’s voice and artistry. Times have changed, but some things remain the same.

RATING 7 / 10