Some people are never going to give Embrace a good review, no matter how good their records are. Because they’re dismissed as a bunch of crap post-Britpop balladeers, they are seen as rather uncool by certain sections of the music world. I bet some critics are sharpening their knives as we speak, and actually looking forward to giving Embrace’s sixth album a kicking. They’ve made up their minds about it before the first track has even started. I approach this review from a completely different angle. I’m also not very keen on a lot of the band’s work, but I do in fact highly rate their first two albums, particularly the magnificent 1998 debut ‘The Good Will Out’. They showed so much promise back then, and looked like they were going to be the next big thing. The follow up ‘Drawn From Memory’ was a flawed but underrated record that didn’t do as well commercially or critically, not helped by a strange choice of singles. The third album from 2001 had it’s moments, but their time had already passed. They returned a few years later in the mid 2000’s, but this time as an outfit aiming themselves directly for the U2/Coldplay audience. Although they shifted quite a few units, their fourth and fifth albums consisted of bland and insignificant sounding examples of dullardry. After taking seven years off, the announcement of their return had got me hoping for a return to the brilliant form of their early days. So I WANT this album to be good.
My hopes have been deflated. There’s nothing here as rousingly anthemic as ‘All You Good Good People’, or as beautifully haunting as ‘Fireworks’. Nor is there the surging guitar power of ‘One Big Family’, the delicate sweetness of ‘Now You’re Nobody’ or the sweeping emotion of ‘Come Back To What You Know’. Nor is there the uplifting melancholy of ‘You’re Not Alone’, or the resigned sigh of ‘Liar’s Tears’. Not even a daft but strangely loveable kazoo-featuring novelty like ‘Hooligan’. But it would be unfair to say that Embrace are no longer capable of doing the things they used to be great at doing. They manage it twice.
The suggestion that the self titled ‘Embrace’ is some sort of reinvigorated new beginning or return to form is revealed to be an untruth after the slightly promising electronic flavoured opener ‘Protection’ ends and the unimaginative New Order pastiche ‘In The End’ begins. It’s very much like the previous two albums but with more synths, as is ‘The Devil Looks After His Own’. The irritating, autotuned ‘Refugees’ is dire, but ‘I Run’ improves on things vastly, and approaches the sort of heartfelt drama they used to do so well. ‘At Once’ is also a beautiful and uplifting moment that comes close to reprising the old magic. But these two flashes of brilliance are alone in their quality.
If you didn’t realise that ‘Follow You Home’ plagiarises from Muse‘s ‘Starlight’ and U2’s ‘With Or Without You’ (as well as a few other songs) it wouldn’t sound that bad. Memorable, catchy even. But not in a good way, more of an annoying way. Plus those boyband backing vocals on the chorus REALLY don’t do them any favours. And isn’t singing about following someone home just a tiny bit creepy? The pulsing electro beats of ‘Quarters‘ are surprising at first, and the verses aren’t too bad. But as soon as it settles into any kind of a groove, a painful falsetto chorus and an ill-advised attempt at bit of dubstep lets it down badly. You can almost sense that some of the band themselves may not have been keen.
This almost obligatory increased presence of beats and synths tries to ensure fans that this 2014 Embrace are firmly with the programme. After all, you can’t take seven years off and not make an effort to catch up with the times. But all it sounds like is a limp attempt to follow the crowd. It’s bland and it’s conformist. Trying too hard to do things they’re not good at, and not utilising the qualities that made them so endearing when they first emerged in the late 90s. The production makes parts of the record sound lifeless, ensuring that no sort of edge is present anywhere. The only attempt at upping the tempo is the tuneless misfire ‘Self Attack Mechanism’, while the closing ‘Thief On My Island’ buzzes with a dark power, although it doesn’t really go anywhere, and the extended outro is a waste of time.
In reality, I suppose none of it is hideously bad or unbearable to listen to. It’s just like a grey, featureless canvas. And there are two pretty good songs that remind you how great Embrace once were. But for listeners hoping for that return to form, prepare for a disappointment.