Embrace - Drawn From Memory
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
You can’t remove an album from its context. I’m not talking about its place in some paradigm shift and I don’t mean historical or musicological importance; I’m talking about when you first heard it, where you were, how it made you feel. You might forget the specifics over time, for most albums you might not remember at all, but for the handful of records that you love, tiny details of the moments when it first played will stay with you. I remember first hearing In Sides, Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, What’s Going On, I remember where I bought them from or who gave them to me, I remember sitting open-mouthed at their culminations and thinking this is what it’s for.
Allow me to be candid for a moment, to add some historical, some biographical detail. At 18 years old I wrote a music fanzine. I wrote off to a load of bands, Spiritualized, Primal Scream, a handful of others that I don’t remember. The only person who wrote back was Danny McNamara from Embrace. They were just emerging and he had a reputation for being a stroppy, arrogant git; the letter he wrote seemed at odds with that. I’d already fallen in love with the 7” of “All You Good Good People” and the “Fireworks EP,” and found the positivism in the band’s interviews alluring. I wanted a band who were going to try and be everything, be essential, write songs that made you want to cry and dance and smash things and be honest with the people that you love in equal measure, and the evidence suggested that this was what Embrace wanted to be.
Cut a long story short—they became my favourite band, namechecks in interviews made me get into Curtis Mayfield, Belle & Sebastian, Sly & The Family Stone, The MC5, Otis Redding, Fugazi, I interviewed them myself after a gig in Bristol for the second issue of the fanzine. But when it finally came out, a year after I’d started writing, I was slightly disappointed with the debut album because while it had some amazing songs it lacked that… energy, creativity… that magic which I’d been looking for (blame The Stone Roses, Screamadelica, The Verve and Orbital, I guess). It was too dramatic, slightly overwrought perhaps. On the day of release I went down with chickenpox. I’ve never been as ill before or since. I went to university not long after, and had a pretty horrendous time for most of the first year.
In November 1999, some 15 months after “My Weakness Is None Of Your Business,” a dark, string-laden swoon of a song, reached number 9 in the charts, Embrace released “Hooligan,” a two-chord acoustic strum featuring wurbling samples and a kazoo solo (apparently because Richard thought the guitar solo on “Crosstown Traffic” was done that way). It didn’t quite fit in with what people were expecting. Danny did a radio appearance and played another track from their forthcoming album, which wasn’t quite finished and would be out the following spring. The song was called “The Love It Takes” and it started out like another ballad. But it went somewhere else. I made a long, impassioned post on the band’s website about how “Hooligan” was an epiphany and signalled a bright creative future for the band, because a flurry of fans were denouncing it.
Drawn From Memory came out on Monday 31st March 2000, six weeks before my 21st birthday and one day after the clocks had gone forward signifying the beginning of British Summer Time. It felt like a significant date to release an album. I first heard it a couple of weeks before then, though—a kind soul on their messageboard had got hold of a promotional copy somehow and posted me a minidisc of it; he’d even used a light-blue disc to match the artwork, and printed little labels for it. It was great. I might still have it somewhere.
That same day it arrived I remember kicking a door down with my landlord; odd times. But that first listen… Student bedrooms are minimal, badly-decorated affairs. Mine contained a chest of drawers with my PC on top; some cheap metal shelving that housed my books and hi-fi; some boxes with my CD collection in; and a mattress with no base for a bed. I sat on the mattress and played the minidisc. I had a recurring dream about being able to fly a lot that year. I played it loud and I played it all the way through and I literally squirmed with delight for the whole length of it.
Drawn From Memory starts with a whirr, some unidentified machine or synthesizer setting buzzing away happily before acoustic guitar notes fall in. This is “The Love It Takes.” Slowly the band adds layers to the song—simple bass, a quiet organ, tender vocals, drums which work in triangular patterns and aren’t so much rhythm as space, electric guitars. Some three minutes in you realise that there’s a heady momentum going, that the sound is now huge, that they’re into a chorus and that they got there by much more subtle means than you might expect. What’s it about? For me, and probably other people too as the lyrics are explicit rather than implicit, it’s about wishing you were capable. “You know that I’d change if I had the love it takes.” Of course it doesn’t actually matter what it’s about. After that chorus, the sound amped up as high as it will go, the song pauses for breath and then runs for the skyline, a guitar + organ break, totally unexpected, rips to the horizon in double-quick time on a bassline that leaps mountains in a single bound, before gently winding itself in over the final minute. It startled me. If I let it, it still does.
There was a launch party at London’s Hanover Grand nightclub, with tickets only sold via the band’s website. 700 people were there. As people queued outside I ran up and down handing out kazoos that I’d bought from the Early Learning Centre during the afternoon. The gig was rammed. Sweat was dripping off the ceiling. As the guy who’d written the fanzine I was invited to the aftershow. Mickey Dale stole beer from the cellar because he thought the bar tariff was extortionate, and he ran around handing out bottles of Grolsch to people. I got home sometime the next day. It was fantastic.
Embrace had spent almost all of 1999 in a manor house in Gloucestershire recording Drawn From Memory. With Danny suffering from what he’d describe later as writer’s block, much of the songwriting responsibility fell on his brother, guitarist Richard, and the nature of the band shifted away from melody-led songs to a more ensemble approach focused on musical arrangements and interplay. Their old production-line habit of laying down a vocal track and then slowly building up guitars, bass, drums and strings over the top one-by-one was shunned in favour of a synergistic, live approach which injected energy and colour into the band’s playing. After the guitar-bass-drums-piano-strings simplicity of their debut album, they got their toys out, adding bongos, Hammond, synth, loops, clarinet, scratching. Tristin Norwell managed to get a fantastic, open sound that made playing the CD seem like the band were in the same room. Danny said just before Drawn From Memory was released that it was Embrace’s “Paul’s Boutique”, the album that sank Beastie Boys commercially for a while but which their fans almost all view as their favourite. Danny said that for him hip-hop wasn’t about songs as much as it was about a succession of magic moments, and that that was what Drawn From Memory was about too, that it had magic moments by the bucketload, instances of sonic punctum that leapt out at you. You might call them hooks. There are loads.
What I said about “Hooligan” being an epiphany was true. But it wasn’t the only one. The whole album was an epiphany. “The Love It Takes” caused them grief in the studio; Danny was reluctant to allow the band to add the technicolour instrumental to a simple song which he cared about in unadulterated form, thought it wasn’t something the band could do, thought it wasn’t who they were. Richard played him David Axelrod; claimed simple songs could and did work with extravagant arrangements, claimed they were capable of it, that they were capable of anything. The band worked on it and worked on it. That opening guitar line in the break is actually an organ; there are no overdubs, the only guitar is the wah-wah underneath. Mickey channelled Zappa. Steve Firth channelled McCartney via Funkadelic. Mike Heaton still doesn’t drum like any other drummer and has still never made a mistake, whether he’s bashing shit out of his kit or dropping cantering fills or playing soft and delicate. Richard seemed like a proper guitar hero rather than some twitchy kid playing at axe-murderer.
I helped to make a documentary about Embrace in 2001. At one point while being interviewed I used the phrase “schizophrenically eclectic” to describe Drawn From Memory; it ended up on Channel 4 but on television you can’t always see tongues-in-cheeks. I wasn’t really joking though. It is nuts, it is diverse. The title track is an atmospheric, elongated piano lament that starts with an instrumental passage that the band calls “Barbara.” These days I often think of the song as overlong and boring, but at points it’s made me cry; I remember one live performance where I used it as an opportunity to go to the toilet. Everyone in the Men’s Room was silent as it played outside except one guy, who whistled the melody perfectly while we peed. It was wonderful.
Oh those live performances. That summer was mad. I saw them in London, on two consecutive nights in the cracked splendour of Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom with Coldplay in tow and two nights later back in London again for MTV. I saw them in a forest clearing halfway between Sheffield and Manchester, playing to about 40 people. Rewind to January and I’d seen them at the Astoria in London, supported by Doves, possibly the best gig of my life, a rapturously received comeback. At one point the crowd cheered so loud during a pause within a song that the band had to stop and soak it all in. I met one of my best friends in the mosh at the front. It was magic.
But the public weren’t taking to it. Embrace had scored three top ten singles and shifted half a million copies of their debut album, which crashed in at number 1 and was the fastest-selling British debut ever at that time. “Hooligan” only got to 18. “You’re Not Alone,” a Motowntastic slice of feel-good pop that owed a debt to The Boo Radleys, came out two weeks before the album and only reached 14. No one wanted guitar bands in 2000, it was Britney’s era and the peak of trance in the UK. But it didn’t matter, because we had an album and b-sides and gigs and if no one else knew how great it was then, well, their loss.
I’ve shied away from it at points, shied away from the band too, but if I’m honest then Drawn From Memory is one of my favourite four or five records ever. I feel like it was made for me. There was a video-feed online when it came out, with the band talking about the making of the album. Richard mentioned an old interview they’d done which he’d found archived online and in which he’d promised the interviewer that the second album would be psychedelic, which made him think “shit, we’d better make it psychedelic then.” I’m pretty sure that interview was the one I’d done for my fanzine back in 1997. I remember the two quotes from singer and guitarist—“psychedelic how?” I’d asked; “Beastie Boys psychedelic” said Danny. “Sly & The Family Stone mad!” said Richard. It’s not about sounding like those bands.
“Save Me” had bongos and crazy organ riffs and a fat funk bassline and only two chords. It came before the title track on Drawn From Memory and then kind of re-emerged straight afterwards as a brief instrumental named “Bunker Song” which riffed off the coda and added big Blaxploitation strings and an enormous thump (they’d recorded it live in stereo on DAT and had to wade through ages of it on tape to find 12 bars where you couldn’t hear Danny yelling “This is great! Keep going!” over the top of it). That in turn segued into “New Adam New Eve” which went too fast and too loud and had this eastern-tinged guitar riff and scratching and a nasty bassline and more organs than you could ever comprehend, a double-thwack of the drums and a do-do-do chorus and the nastiest lyric ever (“the awful weight spread across me when I wake / Is your loving arm around me”) and which still turns their gigs into riots only instead of fighting people dance by jumping up-and-down.
The problem is that you can’t just put this record on in the background and go and wash-up or something. It’s not throwaway. It demands an amount of attention and effort because there’s a lot going on, a lot of ideas and a lot of music in just 48 minutes, and it works in a completely different way to their first album. Let’s be honest—casual fans don’t want bands to develop, to find new methods and new sounds. They want record after record that sounds pretty much the same. And maybe the melodies weren’t as clear and powerful on this record, maybe it was a bit fiddly for some, but even Embrace’s lesser melodies are still clearer to me than those of anybody else. And so some people didn’t like “Yeah You” because it was punky and shouty instead of swooning and surging, and while it may not be as loud and heavy as something like System Of A Down, rock is relative, and next to “Hooligan” and the momentum-breaking minimalism of “Liars Tears” (guitar, organ, voice, regret) it sounds fantastic and alive, heavy metal drums and lyrics about “free-dinners kids with the big ideas,” metallic grating guitar to close, a rush of fury like Nirvana but euphoric and defiant rather than disturbed.
Is it just context and affection that makes me love this record? I’m not into songs as emotional batteries, I don’t listen to things to be reminded of past times good and bad, I listen to things for how they make me feel at the point of contact. Yes this record happened to arrive at a time in my life that veered massively between euphoria and despair, but Aphex Twin and Idlewild and XTRMNTR and a hundred and one other things were as much a soundtrack to that as Embrace, and I can listen to all of them without being reminded of that fraught year in Northampton. I don’t love this record for the associations and memories; I love it for the music. I love it for “I Wouldn’t Wanna Happen To You,” shimmering summery psychedelic pop with tumbling drums and little keyboard melodies filling the periphery and guitars rolling over and melodic bass to open up and horns over the middle 8. I love it for “I Had A Time,” so delicate and ephemeral, sliding guitars and oceans of space, a tune you can barely feel because it’s so gentle, both crystalline and warm, as emotionally affecting as anything from that first record but achieving that affect by such radically different sonic means. There are records that are more consistent or more highly-regarded or more historically important for their music or their impact, weirder records, records with better songs or more proficient playing or better lyrics, but there aren’t many records that I prefer listening to.