For a record filled with so many ambitious sorties, the Delgados’ third LP, The Great Eastern, is surprisingly free of pomp and pretense. It’s refreshing to hear a band with a fairly simple take on pop songs make an effort to step up both complexity and craftsmanship, all without falling into silly flourishes. What makes this feat even more impressive is that, although the Delgados hail from Glasgow, they ultimately resist the temptation to fall into the attitude that tempers so many pop records from that part of the world.
The Delgados’ last record, Peloton, had its share of earnestly pretty melodies and hooks, as well as a clear interest in going beyond the conventional guitar-bass-drums format. But Peloton now seems more like a tutorial in crafting subtly lush arrangements with strings, horns, and various effects—especially because The Great Eastern swarms with little touches that raise the bar somewhat for what should be expected from songwriting-driven pop.
Rock bands often decide to move beyond their typical arrangements, but usually not until later in their careers—and usually with attitude. Whether it’s the gospel-choir richness of Spiritualized’s complicated odes to junkie heartbreak or the colder Radiohead’s dizzying prog-rock meanderings, bands usually can’t help but be overshadowed slightly by their own clever recording tricks.
In setting out to increase the impact of a slight but delightfully sweet ditty like the new “Reasons for Silence (Ed’s Song),” the Delgados eventually leave the guitar strum and gentle chirping of Emma Pollock for a richer hue of strings, sweeping electronic effects, and brass. However rich it gets, though, it never sounds more like a sonic experiment than just a damn good song.
The band’s understated charisma helps its cause. Pollock manages to avoid becoming twee but retains a gentle charm nevertheless. Her range may limit her to the pop-song format, but at least she doesn’t try to vocally squirm like David Yow or holler athletically a la Kathleen Hanna.
For a band that banks, intentionally or not, on drawing the audience into the overall mood of the songs, The Great Eastern’s opening track, “The Past That Suits You Best,” with its fractured inconsistency, initially seems like an odd choice to kick things off. Alun Woodward slowly sings, “Salt in my eyes, stinging my brain/It’s been 40-odd days since we’ve been clean,” over a simple keyboard line. It sounds as if a quiet ballad might be in the works, but after a few bars, the addition of an odd drum-machine beat begins a cycle of tropes that drop in and out, mirrored by tempo changes and Pollock’s tracking vocal lines. And about four minutes in, everything but a few effects fall out for several bars. Although this change seems to fracture the song’s progress, everything jumps back together in the end, and all the parts join at once in a wave of sound that brings it to completion.
“Accused of Stealing,” a seemingly crisp pop song laced with twangy indie-pop guitars and Pollock’s discourse on emotional intimacy, is another such marriage of seemingly divergent tempos. Pollock sings, “Tell me your confessions/Let me be the ears for all your sins,” before admitting that “you will feel appalled as you bare it all, and I don’t even know if I’ll be listening.” Right after that, however, the tempo drops from a pop-bounce to a languid Beatlesque swirl of strings and music that belies the lyrics with an emotional accessibility. Pollock’s coy realization that “how can I let you proceed when there’s only one view” changes with the observation that “I left behind with no doubt in my mind I was gone but 10 years reflection and sudden affection comes on.” Rock lyrics are generally pretty limited in telling moments, but Pollock has captured a legitimate observation on relationships and has written a good song, as well.
“Thirteen Gliding Principles” proves that Woodward deserves equal respect for his vocals; here he trades lines with Pollock in quiet preparation for the near bombast of a million effects and guitars that hammer home a rousing chorus. The distorted riffing turns the delicate call-and-response vocals into a Metallica-style blast.
Given the lengths the band went to finish the 15-month recording process—including several mixing sessions in New York—it’s amazing that The Great Eastern attains albumwide consistency. By using the first track as a legend to track how the arrangements will unfold, a listener will be rewarded with both good songs and an interesting study of meshed effects and stances. The Great Eastern may finally grant the Delgados the same regard in the U.S. as they get at home. And even if the Delgados don’t get the kudos granted such groups as Belle and Sebastian, they shouldn’t blame the music. The Delgados, averse to working the publicity trail and making any kind of media fuss, simply keep their heads down, tour the world, and release great records. CP