was worried. There’s always been these people, see, that reckon that if you took away the strings then The Delgados would be for shit. They never say why they’d want the strings taken away, exactly, or what purpose it would serve. Yet… they’ve kind of got a point. The Delgados of Hate sounded rather different to The Delgados of Domestiques. The odds on them ever recording a song quite like “Under Canvas Under Wraps” or “Teen Elf” ever again seemed a bit remote. But then again, Hate was an absolute glory of an album, dark and lush and sweet and soulful, so pretty, so deadly, stainless steel skeleton inside velvet flesh. My favourite album ever, anyhow.
But The Delgados then got faced with what to do next, how exactly you’re going to top that, and they didn’t want the rut of just being “that band with the strings”. Universal Audio therefore sees them getting rid of the orchestration and finding other stuff to do instead. Sometimes it can be a little unnerving and it sounds as though they’re trying to unlearn their now somewhat ingrained habits, and sometimes you wonder where the kick’s going to come in. At times, it can sound a bit washed out, a bit lacking in activity. After the first listen (basic reaction: “Yes! Some new songs by The Delgados!”), I listened to it a bit more and got worried at what flaws people would jump all over, worried that somehow they’d not pulled it off, that this album, while fundamentally decent, just wasn’t quite good enough, didn’t quite live up to the standards of what had gone before…
But given time, Universal Audio really does blossom into something magic. Having got the strings out, The Delgados find their horizons a bit broadened, and end up finding an awful lot of other things to with which to replace them. “I Fought The Angels” demonstrates that wonderfully, a slowly escalating trip through Emma Pollock’s self-doubt, steadily getting louder and chunkier all the way through its duration, as guitars are added to guitars and vocal tracks get piled up on top of each other. It then gets followed by “Is This All That I Came For?”, where Alun Woodward sort of repeats the trick, but a bit more jauntily, and arguably with a bit of glam-rock thrown in too. I can’t remember quite where that came from, though…
Because it’s followed by The #67 Hit Smash, “Everybody Come Down”! Now, this is going to possibly be a sticking point, because it’s a song where Emma tries to sound cheerful. She’s not one who’s particularly given to sounding cheerful, though, and her exhortations of “We can drive, we can race, we can celebrate space” sound a touch… awkward at times. However, everything else in the song is romping along, snappy little handclaps, bouncing bass, and, towards the end, a nice little backing vocal where she gigglishly chants “Down, down, down, down! Down, down, down, down!” The vocals might not get you, but the tune itself just has this irresistible carefree streak, skipping down the lane into…
“Come Undone”, which, er, doesn’t. Cos what Emma Pollock is really, really good at is sounding mournful, and that’s what’s happening here, superbly. The opening is one piano note, plonked slowly, deliberately after the other. And then the voice, back, again, slow, soft, stretching and caressing the vowels out with impossible delicacy, as the piano goes lower and the drums get louder and fuzzier, as the voice echoes “This is how it feels to drown… this is how we come undone…”, and then it all goes quiet. “Take me back, the sky and the earth, just relax, for what it is worth I love you dear…
“And I will hold you near…” Even for a band not known for skimping on beauty, it’s breathtaking.
But what follows later on is what really lifts Universal Audio into the highest echelons. “The City Consumes Us” and “Girls Of Valour” could quite easily be their first forays into the hallowed territory of the top 40, both for entirely different reasons. “Girls…” is the big euphoric moment of the album, the kind of song that makes you want to run up to people in the street, shove earphones into their ears and yell “LISTEN TO THIS!!!” It’s the sound of them at all systems go, the bass turned up big and heavy, rhythm section banging and booming along, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, the multiple vocals working like never before—Woodward sounds bolstered with confidence and vigour, spelling out the chorus syllable by syllable—“If-You-Change-Your-Mind-You-Will-Find-Ev-Ry-Thing-Inside-You-Will-Coll-Ide!”; behind him, Pollock coos it softly; and then, in with all that, bass player and generally wonderful man Stewart Henderson strains for the high notes Aerosmith-style, yowling “Ev-reh-theng insiiiiiiiide!!!” as though Alicia Silverstone is dancing in a really unconvincing manner beside him. It ticks, booms, roars all the way along, impossibly joyful and exuberant, and just generally fucking incredible.
But before all of that comes “The City Consumes Us”. It’s their song about going home, back to where you grew up. “Streets like the rest of them, but I can’t forget / Faces familiar and full of regret / I hated this place, and all who came from it… I was convinced in my mind I was not of this kind/Faced with banality, I choose calamity”. She finds herself caught between two stones, desperately wanting to run away, not caring what she runs into, and yet finds herself back here, and tries to hide—“Faced with reality, I choose frivolity”. The voice breaks your heart a thousand times over. There’s this guitar solo towards the end, sounding like a firework tearing off into the sky… it’s crushed and battered, finding itself with no escape, trapped in the paradox and desperately wanting out… it’s incredible. If Snow Patrol could have a top 5 hit with “Run”, then “The City Consumes Us” could quite easily be number one for the rest of the decade.
A month ago, this was going to be 7/10. A week ago, 8/10. By the end of the year… fuck knows. It all sounds nice enough to start with, but as you hear it more and more you love it more and more, the simple charms showing themselves to be more and more complicated but no less delightful. It’s like they’re taking on the world left-handed and winning by a landslide.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - SEPTEMBER 20 - SEPTEMBER 26, 2004