Idlewild are a strange band. Not in terms of their music, which is about as strange as white in a hospital, but in terms of their place in recent music history. Some bands shun the mainstream and are happy to exist on the fringes. Some bands do everything they can not to fit in, and massive success finds them anyway. Idlewild sound for all the world like they want to fit in, yet they remain wallflowers at the indie-pop prom.
The Scottish band, fronted by high-minded singer-songwriter Roddy Woomble, have had their share of acclaim, critics having slavered over their first few albums. With 2002’s The Remote Part, they achieved considerable commercial success in the UK. The band’s songs are nothing if not big, magisterial, and fit for huge audiences. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who names Idlewild as their favorite band. Even if you own some of their stuff, much of which is quite good, years could pass between occasions when you find yourself in an “Idlewild mood”.
“Greatest hits” or “best of” albums can serve as watersheds for artists in this position. Sometimes, the compilation becomes much greater than the sum of its parts and reminds people what they’ve been missing or taking for granted. That’s surely what Idlewild aim to accomplish with Scottish Fiction, even though it represents standard end-of-contract protocol. The band have collected a generous portion of singles and album tracks, even roping in a pair from 2007’s Make Another World, their first foray with a new label.
In the UK, where most “indie” acts follow an inevitable “critics’ darlings-top of the charts-scrap heap of ignominy trajectory, there’s a conventional wisdom regarding Idlewild. Their first few albums were great, the story goes. Then, after The Remote Part, they became nothing more than a middling R.E.M. tribute band. In apparent acknowledgment of this perception, Scottish Fiction is sequenced non-chronologically. This only works to the album’s detriment, because you’re still left with the impression that this is a talented band, with some great songs, that still hasn’t found its niche. Scottish Fiction doesn’t solve the Idlewild enigma, it just leaves more of a muddle.
Some critics have responded to Scottish Fiction by saying, “you should just go buy The Remote Part.” They may be onto something, but they’ve got the wrong album. Five of The Remote Part‘s 11 tracks are included here anyway. And, while shimmering ballad “American English” is pretty and earnest enough to have presaged Snow Patrol’s chart run, in retrospect “You Held the World in Your Arms” is as full of bluster as its title would suggest. The Remote Part does give Scottish Fiction its most affecting moment in the form of the track that lends both albums their titles. “The Remote Part/Scottish Fiction” begins as a pretty acoustic lament, a welcome reprieve from the bombast. Then, as the guitars roar in, Scottish poet Edwin Morgan reads his own poem with a resigned yet authoritative tone. Tellingly, the song is more mysterious and intriguing than anything the band come up with on their own.
They do write some cracking singles, though, and nearly all come from 2000’s 100 Broken Windows. The pensive, Gertrude Stein-baiting “Roseability” showcases what happens when the band successfully match a thoughtful melody with Woomble’s literary bent. Likewise, “These Wooden Ideas” takes on postmodern detachment with, brilliantly, postmodern irony. “Little Discourage” simply rages with genuine angst, while the midtempo “Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)” buzzes along with the efficiency of prime Smashing Pumpkins. Even here, shades of early R.E.M. are apparent, with Idlewild’s similarly lived-in take on jangly guitars and Woomble’s wordy, mumbly delivery. But if R.E.M. is present, so are the Smiths, Chameleons, Nirvana, and others.
Wedged in amid such hefty material, the pair of songs from bratty/punky first album proper Hope Is Important sound like the work of another band altogether. Charming as “When I Argue I See Shapes” is, it’s jarring in this context. Then there’s the matter of those post-Remote Part albums. 2005’s Warnings/Promises has taken the most critical bashing for its softer, mid-tempo approach. It’s true that some of the four selections here recall latter-day, middle-of-the-road R.E.M. The arrangements and playing are a marked step back from the bombast of previous work. But there’s also a contented, SoCal vibe at play, giving “El Capitan” a sunny, maritime feel.
That leaves those two tracks from Make Another World. That album’s title track finds Woomble and company finally realizing they can achieve grandeur without shoehorning in as many power chords and words as possible. “No Emotion” actually grooves, and, despite its glum subject matter, is more fun than anything the band’s done in ages. And maybe that detail, along with the wacky sequencing, is what ultimately makes Scottish Fiction less engrossing than it should be. Generally speaking, Idlewild are not much fun. Somehow, most of their music lacks the exuberance to go along with those power chords.
If you really want to get a picture of Idlewild’s best work, seek out 100 Broken Windows and Make Another World. In a pinch, though, Scottish Fiction will suffice should one of those rare “Idlewild moods” strike.