When Idlewild‘s second album, 100 Broken Windows, came out a couple years ago, they came across as a simple, innocuous, amiable little Scottish band who did a nice R.E.M./Smiths tribute act. Great songs like “Little Discourage” and “Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)” showed the world that this was a band that seemed on the verge of something really great. So, buoyed by their growing popularity in the UK, as well as some rather rapt critics in North America, the band headed back into the studio with their sights set high. Very high.
Idlewild don’t just want to be a good little indie band. They want to be huge, and their latest CD, The Remote Part, is an unabashed attempt at serious mass popularity. It’s loud, it’s sensitive, it soars, it soothes; heck, it even has a freakin’ poetry reading, for crying out loud. And the formula has worked, so far, with the band hitting it really big in their homeland. Better yet, The Remote Part is tailor-made for North American radio, possessing enough accessible pop hooks, yet plenty of loud guitars to distract modern rock radio listeners from the fact that they’re listening to another wussy British band. However, whether the album connects on this side of the Atlantic remains to be seen.
The Remote Part is, without a doubt, the best album Idlewild has ever put out, and this fact is driven home by a stupendous first six tracks. The smash UK single “You Held the World in Your Arms” is prototypical, overproduced, strings-laden, grandiose posturing, but my oh my, does it ever work. Singer Roddy Woomble (the owner of the best name in rock music today) shamelessly spouts ridiculous lyrics, complete with a hint of a Scotsman’s brogue (“Every face, even the one you saw yesterday / It looks different today / Because everything’s changed since yesterday / In every possible way”), but like the best songs by The Cranberries, you just chortle to yourself and enjoy it; it may be bombastic, but it beats Creed any day. The explosive “A Modern Way of Letting Go” (the first US single), goes back to their hard-rocking past, and is an adrenaline-fused blend of aggression and melody that bests anything American emo bands have managed in the past year. “I Never Wanted” is a beguiling mid-tempo ballad, with some much stronger lyrics by Woomble (“I created myself to be on my own / But I didn’t expect to be alone”), while “(I Am) What I Am Not” sounds tailor mad for rock radio, and beats silly bands like Hoobastank at their own game. “Live in a Hiding Place”, on the other hand, is a terrific, R.E.M. style acoustic tune, boasting a lilting piano lick in the chorus.
The best of the lot, though, is the beautiful “American English”. One of the best songs to come out in 2002, this one is the band’s attempt at a big, stadium anthem, the kind of song that sounds like it was made to be played especially for huge festival crowds. Opening with a U2-like chiming guitar intro by guitarist Rod Jones, Woomble steps in with a real knockout of a first verse, that includes the lines, “Maybe your young without youth / Or maybe your old without knowing anything’s true / I think your young without youth.” Meanwhile, Bob Fairfoull’s bass is thrumming away in a good imitation of Adam Clayton’s minimal style, and the song bursts into a sweeping chorus, as Woomble pleads with a lover to take her head out of the clouds and focus on the hopelessly starry-eyed geezer in front of her, as he sings, “Sing a song about myself / Keep singing a song about myself / Not some invisible world.” It’s Idlewild’s own little epic, and nothing on the album comes close to the weepy majesty of this one.
On the album’s last five songs, though, the record doesn’t quite manage to hit the same heights, and as a result, The Remote Part becomes merely a pretty good album instead of a great one. “Out of Routine”, while being a very good, upbeat song, has a riff and a melody that sounds like it could be easily sung by someone like New Found Glory or Bowling For Soup, the only difference being Woomble’s distinctive, Scottish Michael Stipe voice and his lofty lyrics. “Century After Century” is the album’s most tepid song, with Woomble’s blatant Stipe obsession getting downright oblique in the lyrics: “I didn’t hear cheerleading for creative writers / And your cheekbones don’t taste of anything at all.” “Tell Me Ten Words” starts off with a country-tinged intro with acoustic guitar and mandolin, then bursts into another effective faux-R.E.M. tune, while “Stay the Same” does the whole upbeat hard rock thing again. “In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction” is the album’s most ambitious track, featuring a reading by Scottish poet laureate Edwin Morgan. It’s an interesting, but odd conclusion; however, it manages to not get too heavy-handed.
It may be the album Idlewild was born to make, but despite some spectacular moments, its momentum wanes a tiny bit as it gets closer to the end. Still, the band obviously are aware of how much is too much, and The Remote Part clocks in at a reasonably comfortable 39 minutes. Mainstream success in North America seems within their grasp, and it just could happen here, but let’s hope Idlewild can come up with the perfect album they’re so capable of next time around.