In a musical climate where bands are popping back up from the grave like zombie meerkats, it’s easy to be cynical about the re-emergence of another once-was. However, for every Dodgy and the like raising its lolloping, undead head, there’s always an exception.
With Embrace, their disappearance into an eight-year hiatus was not due to rigor mortis – they in fact broke away on the back of a career high, with another number one album under their belt and their highest position in the UK singles chart (Nature’s Law reaching number 2).
In the resurrection stakes, most acts generally end up rehashing slightly arthritic versions of their former selves, while others – Dodgy, for instance – leave you dusting off long-forgotten, but timeless phrases like ‘What the fucking hell is this?’
Having written previous album This New Day in around the time it takes to play it (well, not quite, but it was pretty rapid – hastened by overzealous label droids), Embrace, instead of riding on the mechanics of this conveyor-belt creativity, seemed to run for their lives. A laudable and pretty much unprecedented move in a sell-out industry such as this – and one that seems to have, in a creative sense, paid huge dividends.
The initial bars of opening track Protection almost shocks you into paying attention, its industrial electronics sounding more like a science-fiction Depeche Mode remixed by Kraftwerk than anything resembling Embrace. Overlain with a rumbling, New Order-esque electronic beat adds to the what-the-fuck? factor. It’s only Danny McNamara’s unmistakable vocals that draw you back to familiar ground – a ground that has shifted in the intervening years, the singer’s voice now containing a velvety, haunted quality that resounds with a richer depth.
When the chorus kicks in – and kick you it most certainly does – with Mike Heaton’s asthmatic drums and Danny’s brother Richard partnering on vocals, Embrace truly announce their arrival. “Can’t see the future, but I know it’s got its eye on me” the brothers harmonise from the tops of towers built on the foundations of gospel music. If it’s a choral ‘hallelujah!’ you’re after, this is pretty much its definition.
From there, the album becomes a cathedral of Heaven-bound choruses and soulful laments – sometimes simultaneously. In The End is a hands-in-the-air sunburnt soliloquy, while introductory single Refugees brings Richard McNamara’s grandiose vocals to the fore, via a falsetto borne out of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, before exploding into a chorus that defies the laws of gravity – a prison-break of a song that screams with emancipated euphoria and aptly precedes this album.
In fact, the motif on the cover artwork depicts the symbol of five in a prisoner’s tally marks – representing the quintet themselves, but also perhaps the confinement that has propagated this resurgence. In the video of the single, Danny McNamara is unconscious and covered in tallies, perhaps denoting somebody imprisoned in himself, and counting the days away on his own skin. Either way, it’s a suitable symbol; time, for this band, has been the ultimate sculptor.
Rather than rushing back into the fray, the break seems to have produced an evolution of sound – as if they’ve escaped the confines of what defined them. I Run is a prime example – a ghostly ballad that is haunted by itself, and one of Danny McNamara’s most introspective songs, steeped in a self-analytical honesty that has always been the singer’s forte. On the heels of this, Quarters startles you out of your comfort zone once again, shoving a disco beat into your face with Richard McNamara’s bizarre falsetto approximation of the Scissor Sisters… but with actual balls (the Machete Brothers?). It also has a chorus that would make the Scissor Sissies shit themselves, such is its vertiginous grandeur.
The greatest aspect of Embrace 2014 is that they’re utilising all their strengths – Richard and Danny sharing vocals where necessary, and even more effectively when coupled together. The best example of this is Follow You Home, a relentlessly driven song that has the brothers rhapsodising over the pains of social-media divorce, with a vocal pairing that virtually Yins and Yangs with synchronistic compatibility. Possibly one of their best songs to date, it only leaves you wondering why they haven’t utilised this duel vocal process before: “Every word just makes me choke, makes me sorry that I spoke/That’s what I get for talking back, I suppose”. In harmony, the lyrical lament is double – but the sound is absolutely magical.
The visceral ballad At Once forms a resonant corridor down which “bad blood” is not so much spilled but rather forms a tide that rushes in and breaks on the shores of a beautifully undulating melody, Danny’s vocals resounding as if from a seashell.
After which, the tsunami hits – Self Attack Mechanism crashing in with devastating effect and obliterating many preconceptions of what Embrace as a band really are. Singer Danny has been candid about the stipulations behind making this album – that it had to better their debut – but you cannot say either way, because the albums are simply not comparable. Where The Good Will Out strode optimistically into the new dawn, Embrace is a record that, while reaching euphoric heights, is also anchored by a sense of perspective and experience. The lines “We all die on our own, and you ain’t no exception” being a million miles away from their debut’s determined insouciance.
This aspect is demonstrated in the most pointed and poignant terms with the album’s final couplet – and perhaps the best songs Embrace have ever made. The Devil Looks After His Own takes love’s cynicism and marries it with mercenary business tactics, the lyrics “The winner of the rat race is still a rat” acknowledging love’s futility, while “The web you weave unravels itself” points to its consequences (“It’s all for nothing”). All this is soundtracked by an implacable construction of sound that feels like a mountain in the making – an oxymoronic song that is simultaneously the most colossal and cynical track Embrace have ever made. And the altitude it takes you to leaves you utterly breathless.
After which, the panoramic closer Thief On My Island is an epic seascape that could soundtrack a Stephen Sondheim adaptation of a Samuel Beckett play – in essence, it’s almost a play in itself, composed as it is in various acts, with character, atmosphere and a paradoxically aggressive outro that lends it something that transcends simple songwriting: it’s dramatic, apocalyptic and laid utterly bare. “There’s no road and no reference to violence/Or levies to pay that will bring you asylum” Danny McNamara intones from his solitary seashell, giving perhaps his best ever vocal performance, over a cathedral of keyboards that shakes its own foundations.
When they’re in this kind of form, Embrace’s music and lyrics are almost literary – speaking to you beyond its simple format. You’re not just hearing music – like reading a book, you’re being led into another place that dares you to look inwards. It’s music that enfolds itself – meta-music, making more apt the album’s eponymous title – with a terse but vivid lyrical slant that favours the likes of Vonnegut or Hemingway: concision that becomes more profound the more you delve.
Embrace has never been just a band name – it’s a kind of mantra. This eponymous return holds that sentiment closer than ever. To that end, you should embrace Embrace with open ones … or bid a farewell to arms.
*This album is available to pre-order here: http://po.st/EmbraceStore