By rights and for all their faults, mention of Embrace should give the Q readers of this world a bigger stiffy than Chris Martin suckling on Noel Gallagher’s teat backstage at Glastonbury to the shake of Ringo Starr’s maraca. If only they didn’t keep fucking it up. But saying that presumes that they’re capable of not fucking it up. And maybe they aren’t. It’s a perception thing, largely. You think you hate Embrace. To some extent you probably do, because they hardly make it easy for you to feel otherwise. But their saving grace has always been that they’re much more dextrous than you care to remember. Album by album Danny Macnamara’s vocals have grown new legs, gone from strength to strength, been a talking point even, but for all the training in the world, at the end of the day they’ll still be capable of driving a Samaritan to cut his bungee cord. Add that to the fact that their sense of adventure gives up when it strays towards the shire’s limits and you’ll begin to understand the crux of their problem.
Thing is, you can be well-bred, beautifully groomed and as light on your feet as Tinkerbell on the Atkins diet, but if you’ve got a big unsightly backside you ain’t never gonna to be a ballerina. The men of Embrace are the hunchbacks of CD:UK-approved indie; adept theorists, master planners, but clumsy graceless craftsmen. For all that they’re good at, they’re still Embrace. Their biggest problem is and always will be themselves. How things could be different. The album starts off with genuinely sizeable aspirations, ‘Ashes’ sounding like U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, buttering on rich strings and even a friggin’ gospel choir. But it has nothing at the helm, nothing conducting, nothing standing tall. They spend more time watching each others’ backs than pushing in the right direction. For every aspiration there’s an equal let down.
‘Gravity’, the Coldplay penned single (and Chris Martin’s next move towards becoming the Carling of songwriting?) isn’t the highlight of the record, but it has a focus and understanding where much of the rest of the album does not. ‘Looking As You Are’ tries but dissipates. ‘Wish ‘Em All Away’ offers nothing to drag your attention from the fact that it is Joan Osbourne’s lamentable ‘If God Was One Of Us’ rehashed, and the title track begins with some promising melancholy but sounds like it’s vocals are just standing in until Chris Martin turns up. Its instrumental climax does have an air to it though. One of the best tracks, ‘Near Life’, works by exploring a new roughness as the band weave a swell of Bad Seeds/Verve ambience. It’s refreshing in its darkness, but for that reason the rest of the album sits uncomfortably next to it. Everything’s there, for the most part, but this album’s like trying to light a fire with the wind eternally blowing in the wrong direction.