Recently, I found myself pulled into a kerfuffle (a lovely word) with someone on the internet (a horrible thing) over Desire Lines. in defending it, the other guy used that awful word that people often mistake as some sort of measure for greatness – consistent. Yes, Desire Lines is consistent, and there’s nothing wrong with it (although there’s really no reason for any album to start with an unmemorable string intro) but the problem is I’d rather have something that’s consistently great – no Camera Obscura album qualifies – or, at the very least, has moments of inarguable greatness, ie. Let’s Get Out of the Country’s “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” and My Maudlin Career’s “French Navy” and “Sweetest Thing”; tunes that were so good that I forgave the rest of the album for never coming close to those lofty heights.
Nothing here of the sort, either. Slant magazine’s Kevin Liedel aptly sums up the album, “Desire Lines sees Camera Obscura straining harder for complexity; they maintain their famous sweetness while dialing back on some of the stronger melodies that defined Let’s Get Out of This Country and My Maudlin Career. Campbell’s picaresque narratives of teenage flings certainly benefit as a result of the newfound nuance, but what the band gains in maturity they lose in excitement: Desire Lines is both their most balanced and monotonous effort to date, with such little distinction between its dozen sleep tracks that it makes ideal background music. The band all too often appears to be hiding in the comfortable niche of their ambrosial indie pop, letting Desire Lines‘s soft, slow-dance ballads drown in their own sugary but tasteless syrup.” Yup. I’ve heard the album in full several times now, and I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t tell most of the songs apart after it’s all said and done, despite the fact that the band’s brought in big guns to replace reverb: strings, trumpets, (and unless my ears are mistaken, clarinets too, as per “This is Love (Feels Alright)”), and both Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) (it’s like a game of Where’s Waldo just to spot him) and Neko Case for backing vocals (whose distinct vocals are squandered when she’s delegated to do the bare minimum of harmonizing as on “Every Weekday”). It’s a sad day when an indie band mistakes indie for being shorthand for “indistinct.”
“Troublemaker,” recently given a video, is pretty emblematic of another problem that Desire Lines. It’s an incredibly riff-centric album for a band that years ago could have been carried on the shoulders of Tracy Campbell’s sweetness (can’t spell that word with all the letters of “twee”) alone. Here, she sings the words in that song without much weight, melodic or otherwise. Jimmy Kittel tries to distinguish “Cri du Coeur” from the rest of these tracks in its coda, but methinks the buzz (sounds like a saltshaker, indeed) was a terrible idea. The raindrops that come-in partway through “Fifth in Line to the Throne” (one of the album’s stronger vocal melodies) was a good idea but nicking an entire verse out of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” and making it less direct and thus worse (“If you want me to stay, let it show / If you want me to leave, let me know”), was a bad idea. The best tracks here are “This is Love (Feels Alright),” that could be the soundtrack to a slow dance with an important person (listen especially to the way Campbell sings the title’s words) (cool drumming too) and “I Missed Your Party” where, for the first and only time on the album, everything works in tandem: Campbell’s dramas, an oscillating guitar line that becomes a twinkle and 50s’ horns to distinguish.
Do you want to know why “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” was so affecting? Because the music suggested that the title (also its hook) was all a lie – there was still fight left in her. Comparatively, the songs here sound like she’s given up, and that’s something you should never do.