“Hello old friend, it’s been a while…”
Doves are back. And it’s like…ah I know what it’s like. Last year I went back to the UK for a wedding, and also arranged to meet up with an old university friend I’d not seen since we graduated in 1990, and with whom I’d reconnected on Facebook a few months previously. Old drinking partners who’d lost touch and both been through a lot of ups and downs in the intervening three decades, we met up, hugged, went straight to the pub, and sat there knocking back the pints and chatting as if those thirty years had been just thirty hours. THAT’S what Doves’ comeback is like, returning to our lives after an eleven-year absence and making it feel like a hug and a pint with an old friend.
What is it about Doves? Why is it that this band, who don’t really push any musical boundaries, who don’t even have a particularly unique sound, mean so much to me and to many others? What is that indefinable quality that, even when it’s been put into hibernation since 2009, is once again so immediately potent on The Universal Want? Maybe it’s different for everyone, but for me it’s an empathy thing; Jimi Goodwin always sounds like he’s singing to you personally, telling stories of a life lived to the full with all the drink, drugs, loves, losses and fuckups that entails, and now we’re both in our 50s, looking back with regrets and, maybe, wishing we’d taken different paths at certain points, it resonates more than ever, even more than it did on ‘The Cedar Room’ or ‘Walk in Fire’. It’s your life, soundtracked by music that sounds as special as it does because it’s made by old ravers who know when to push the euphoria button and when to dial things down.
So, The Universal Want. It’s great of course. It sounds like the album Doves would’ve made if they hadn’t taken a break after 2009’s lovely, underrated Kingdom of Rust. It yearns and sparkles in all the right places. It starts with ‘Carousels’ which is an instant Doves classic, from the shuffling beat to the shimmering guitar hook, to file alongside ‘There Goes the Fear’ and ‘Here it Comes’. So are ‘I Will Not Hide’ and, possibly the best thing here, ‘Prisoners’, with that opening line of “Hello old friend, it’s been a while” grabbing you right by the heartstrings and dragging you along for its glorious, spine-tingling 4+ minutes.
It also does that weird thing that Doves pull off where they make what should be bog-standard northern anthemic indie rock, the kind of thing you might find on a late-period Oasis or Elbow album if you were inclined to listen to such things – you know, they’ve done it before with stuff like ‘Catch the Sun’ or ‘Words’ or ‘Spellbound’ – and by some unknown alchemy, turn it into something impossibly moving. So ‘Broken Eyes’, possibly the best thing here (hang on I already said that about ‘Prisoners’ didn’t I. Ah well), transcends the sum of its parts and has you grinning and blubbing at the same time; whilst ‘For Tomorrow’, almost certainly the best thing here, is a tearjerking epic of damage and regret (“You’ve seen me at my best, you’ve nursed me through my worst…so all our dreams of families slip by into the breeze…”) that gets me, as the young people say these days I believe, right in the feels.
It’s not a perfect album – Doves’ scruffy imperfection being part of the deal, the charm – and its second half is nowhere near as good as its first, with ‘Cathedrals of the Mind’ threatening to turn into a hands-in-the-air rave but never quite getting there, and the title track surging to a climax before turning into baggy indie-dance straight off Cut Copy’s Free Your Mind, but finishing far too soon. 50-something blokes wanting to go raving but realising they’re far too old? Ooh, cuts a bit close to home that does.
But it ends with the truly lovely ‘Forest House’, a dreamy, rural escape from the previous Doves territory of cooling towers and the M62, a last pint and a hug and a reassurance that everything will probably be OK in the end, and even if that’s it for another 11 (or 30) years, it’s enough for now.