How We Operate
he new Gomez album, their fifth, begins in disconcerting, even worrying fashion. A downbeat acoustic guitar figure wends its way over brushed drums terminating in synthetic strings. For only the second time on a Gomez record, the first voice heard is not that of Ben Ottewell, one of the great rock vocalists of the last decade. Even more worrying, singer Ian Ball is sounding the artistic retreat: “I stopped trying to write the things I don’t like / And I started going back to where I’d been before.”
Or are they? “But I think she saw through it, I see through myself / Another chance gone, won’t get many more,” Ball sings before downshifting into a chorus steeped in regret: “That’s not the only lie I told you / You never notice.” Is Gomez selling out for another chance? Precisely what lie are we being told?
I’ve always had the impression that Gomez work quite hard to minimize the number of times they rely on the power of Ben Ottewell’s voice. It’s just too easy: if the sex-in-glasses of “Touchin’ Up” doesn’t get you, then the eruptive vocal orgasm of “Get Miles” will. But Ottewell’s pipes aren’t the only gimmick that the band has downplayed recently. With three singers and three guitarists, Gomez discovered some time ago that they could rely on traded guitar lines and three part harmonies to make them lots of friends (see “Bring It On,” where their voices literally meld into one another). What’s a band to do with a strategy that’s both too effective and too easy?
Gomez have tried several tactics. After the smoke-hazed Liquid Skin, a stoned continuation of their debut Bring It On, In Our Gun looked for new horizons in dub and electronic effects. The middling Split the Difference curbed the band’s proggish, whimsical tendencies in favor of curt rockers made for live performance. And so, on to 2006’s How We Operate.
Despite what Ball might have you believe, the truth is that there is very little on Operate that sounds like anywhere Gomez have been before. The titular U.S. single is the most classically gnarly track on the record, evoking Liquid Skin’s kitchen sink mentality (in addition to contrapuntal rhythms and a banjo, the song includes a snatch of an unreleased track dating to 1998), but it’s there that the similarities peter out. Gone are the blues leanings that provoked and then pissed off critics (the bluesiest number is the country-leaning “Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol,” which gives a full hearing to Ottewell’s rangy-to-raging slidework, mysteriously slept on since Bring It On’s “Here Comes The Breeze”). Gone too are much of Ottewell’s gravelly growlings that made for pointless Vedder comparisons.
Instead, Operate has what sounds like the most individually-composed songs the band has recorded, dropping the freewheeling, collaborative jamming for fully conceived songwriting. The interplay of three voices has always evoked The Band more than anyone else (with baby-faced Tom Gray as Rick Danko, the ostrich-neck stringy Ball as Richard Manuel and Ottewell, obviously, as Levon Helm). By giving free rein to their individual songwriting voices, Operate sounds more like the evocative, detailed compositions of Robbie Robertson than ever, showing a razor-sharp pop sensibility that the band has previously swamped with quirks. The resulting tastiness is unwonted in pop music and occasionally breathtaking: seductive without recourse to sex, mellifluous without melisma, ballsy without bravado.
The opening salvo lands like a five song mash-up of guitar pop’s greatest moments, from the bittersweet “Notice” through the subliminal feel-good boogie of “Hamoa Beach” to the Beatle-browed “girlshapedlovedrug.” The album’s first Tom Gray song and the oh-so-hiply-titled lead British single, “girlshapedlovedrug” may be the most perfect pop song Gomez have produced, slicing true-love sweetness with lemon-juiced paper cuts. Funny thing: while Ottewell does a persuasive whiskey-drenched sex-god impersonation, Gray’s breathy, sweet, ever-so-English voice does (slightly kinky) ardor with the depth of feeling of a chirpier, lover-boy Morrissey: “When this song is sung, don’t let it color your opinion / That girl’s my life.” Gomez’s secret weapon, Gray is the least prominent of the three singers, but his songwriting is the glue that holds the enterprise together.
I suspect Gray gave away one of Operate’s best songs, the down-home, neither-a-borrower-nor-a-lender-be cut “See the World,” to be sung by Ottewell. Ottewell is gaining gravitas as a vocal interpreter, claiming songs as diverse and weighty as “Blackeyed Dog” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” Once you’ve heard Ottewell murderously assault Mick and Keef’s “Not Fade Away,” it’s hard not to hear Jagger’s spindly take as the cover. On “See the World,” Gray’s inverted melody turns That Voice upside down to expose its soft but lustrous underbelly.
Still, none of the new songs have the artless, boys-with-toys wonder that begat Bring It On’s “Whippin’ Piccadilly” or “78 Stone Wobble,” but that’s what debut records are for. In its place, Operate has the shaken-not-stirred virtue of maturity. Potential clunkers like “Charlie Patton Songs,” (Ball’s quixotic, English search for deep meaning in the great bluesman’s songs about cotton, death, and rattlesnakes) weave themselves around you like a net; by the time he gets to the chorus’ litany of American cities, reveling in the mystical wordiness of “Louisville” and “Philadelphia,” the only escape is by chewing off your own ears.
The album closes with “Don’t Make Me Laugh,” on which Gray politely bids the world auf wiedersehen. It has the feel of a live take: three voices, three guitars and a gently swinging rhythm section, the sort of song Gomez used to take care to bury on B-sides. The worst thing about an album this good is counting on the B-sides to see you through the wait for the next one.