Written by Stephen Brolan
“Coming back to what you know won’t mean a thing…”
If coming back means losing sight of what you were there for in the first place, there’s really no percentage in returning. In an age that’s produced more comebacks than the Boomerang Olympics, it’s easy to treat regenerations with a degree of scepticism. In the case of Embrace, however, rather than grabbing at the coattails of former glories, a seven-year hiatus was precipitated by the most commercially successful high-point in their career.
Having notched up another number one album and scored their highest placing in the UK singles chart with Nature’s Law, the band simply decided to head back home to their roots in West Yorkshire and take a clean break.
The album This New Day being a false dawn, the five-piece strode into the sunset with success still striding like a shadow behind them. Curious behaviour, for a band whose 1998 debut The Good Will Out was one of the fastest-selling British albums ever. But for some, success is not the pinnacle of pursuit…
“We were a bit fried after the last album,” singer Danny McNamara says. “Things went really well, from a commercial point of view, but I think we lost sight of what we were about and what we really wanted to do.
“We were getting bigger and bigger, playing arenas, we had our biggest ever single, and it just didn’t feel right. This New Day just felt like a bit of a let down,” he pauses, considering: “But the thing is, albums are just a snapshot of where you’re at, and I feel this album more than makes up for the disappointment of the previous one.”
Eschewing the easy option, it’s reassuring to know there are still bands out there who won’t compromise on quality; or at least when they do – albeit unwittingly – they have the self-possession to walk away and find some perspective.
“You can tend to get swallowed up in the mechanics of it all,” Danny reflects. “We just got to a stage where we didn’t really recognise ourselves. We just needed a break from it and needed to regroup.”
And regroup they did, but not in the egalitarian manner in which the last album was made – essentially a studio-based group effort – Danny and brother Richard instead returning to their solo-writing mandates, producing over 100 tracks in the interim – ten of which make up the monolith that is their latest calling card, the eponymous Embrace.
Danny reveals: “It just feels like we’re starting over. That’s why we called it Embrace, cos it’s like we’re redefining ourselves. Loads of titles came out, but they felt quite limiting. Calling it Embrace just felt right.”
With the self-titled new album, the band have mined their very essence and delivered a piece of work that unearths the core of what Embrace have always been about – skyward-bound music of the soul that reaches far beyond life’s parameters. As a group, Embrace have always inspired a fervid and devoted following – not because fashion dictated (quite the contrary, in fact) – but because theirs was always a sound and a voice that elevated while, paradoxically, grounded that feeling in something that was real. And the fervour that essence has propagated hasn’t diminished in the seven-year gap.
“It’s great that after so long people are still mad for it,” Danny says of the recent resurgence of their apparently rabid and unquenchable fanbase. “We put on this secret gig in Halifax and we were worried it wouldn’t sell out… and it sold out in about 45 minutes. We’ve been away for so long, we don’t know what’s happening out there.
“You never assume there’s going to be an audience, and that’s what drives you to make the records as strong as they can be, because that’s all you’ve got in your favour – you might win people over or appease the people who already like your music. But if we start making crap records, people will go somewhere else.”
Not necessarily the case with Embrace, since the poorest showing among their albums –2001’s If You’ve Never Been – was followed by the phoenix from the flames that was 2004’s aptly titled Out Of Nothing, which saw the band shoot back to the summit from what was looking like commercial and artistic oblivion. And perhaps this is what makes Embrace so appealing – that they are always fighting back against the odds. It’s not only a recurrent theme in the lyrics of their songs (“Watch me rise up and leave all the ashes you made out of me”) but also a mantra that has seen them forge a career and an identity uniquely their own – music that exists for its own sake, not attached to some spurious social or fashion-based agenda.
“The music is of itself, there doesn’t need to be a context; it has to stand up on its own without an explanation,” says Danny ardently.
“In the beginning, people got us because we were a new band and we sold loads of records, but we didn’t really fit in with all the other bands; we weren’t Britpop. And I think a lot of bands that last a long time are those that never really fitted in.”
Probably the single most fundamental factor that endears people to a band like Embrace, and makes the fans almost jealously protective, is the fact they’re in a certain spotlight, but always just outside the clique and the current trends. It’s an aspect that permeates and fortifies the music itself – that being yourself, in spite of what fashion dictates or what anybody else thinks, is the only route worth taking. That they have taken seven years to produce another record was not down to writer’s block or lack of initiative – the band simply would not compromise on their output, not anymore. It had to feel right.
“It takes a while to get in the right zone to make stuff – you don’t know you’re in it until you’re in it,” Danny reflects. “You never think when you’ve finished something it’s not very good – you always really like it. It’s only when a few weeks or months later you get a chance to reflect that you get the true picture of it.
“Taking the time to work gives you that chance to look back on what you’ve done. And we’ve had the chance to play this album live a few times, and that gives you a whole different perspective. The first single (Refugees) is an EP, with three really strong tracks supporting it, and it’s the best EP since our first one. And it just feels like we’re starting over – almost like we’re doing our first album again.”
Fans of said album should take heed – this is no The Good Will Out part II (The Bad Will In? The Ugly Will Stay Put?). The frontman is talking principally of the exuberance that comes from charting a new course, rather than ploughing old territory. For while the new record does contain the kind of soul-bearing honesty and vertiginous, life-affirming choruses that typifies their music –particularly in The Good Will Out – with the new album an element of raw darkness lurks with almost conspiratorial glee beneath – particularly in Danny’s vocals, which contain a newfound, haunted resonance – which hints of a band that has really come back into themselves, both as a collective and as people, but have also grown into something that transcends the mechanics of simply making music.
With The Good Will Out as their songs of innocence, Embrace encapsulates their songs of experience.
“I think the first record is great, but the thing about it is I’d just been ill, and I was recovering from that,” Danny says, referring to a post-traumatic stress disorder that plagued him in his early twenties. “I was seeing everything differently – colours were burning brighter, and I was hearing orchestras in my head, and I was really inspired and had loads to write about, and had a hopeful perspective on life.
“Now, I feel very different; I’m better again, and it’s been a longer period of time, but I see the darkness in life more now.”
And it’s this darkness and experience that now informs the music of Embrace, after first forming in the small town of Brighouse, West Yorkshire, armed with a sense of purpose that sought to out the good, which in turn would bring out the best they could be. And you can sense their path has now reached a point that reconciles the insouciant optimism of those bare beginnings, and unfurls a new chapter that walks a line drawn from memories that are deeply etched in a sense of mortality.
“In the end, the good doesn’t come out,” Danny reflects on former philosophies. “In the end, you die on your own. And what that does is it informs every moment you’re alive, in that it’s precious and finite and short. And that’s what’s informing this record – it’s almost the opposite…” He pauses, before concluding: “It’s like coming full circle from the first record…”
Embrace have come back, but what they know means more now than ever before – that being alive is one thing; living it is everything. Embrace it, always.
*A review of SG#22 ‘One Big Family’ Secret Festival can be read here: https://stephenbrolan.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/embrace-sg22-review-knebworth-england/
**This biography is also published in the Embrace Fans’ Book, edited by Suzi Bewell, and is available to buy from www.allyougoodgoodpeople.wordpress.com