I’ve read a great deal about this album. Reviews, opinion pieces, many lukewarm, others drifting away from the complementary altogether. Common inferences that as a proposition, the band have always been a little bit too clever for their own good. Too arthouse; too busy with unconventional time signatures and stalactite posturing to truly resonate with the wider public.
As a result, certain critics appear disappointed that O Shudder doesn’t continue in a same vein as 2011’s Cadenza or third album Out of Touch in the Wild, out one year later. Still more imply guilt by association; a form of ingrained prejudice towards a sound that escapes convenient categorisation – all those loose comparisons to King Crimson and references to art rock applied in the pejorative.
In fact, leaving aside for the moment the fact that I get paid for scribbling about records, music hacks can be a bunch of arse-trumpets when the mood takes them; convention dictates that a band on LP number four should either have “made it” (even if that is the indie appropriation of “made it,” each subsequent release selling in bigger numbers than its predecessor, the gigs creeping up the venue size hierarchy even if they’ll never play arenas), or remained bijou and low-key whilst garnering significant critical praise and a cult following – call it the Mark E Smith career trajectory.
Dutch Uncles can’t be filed under either category – they can still be seen playing the same toilet circuit basements they were playing four or five years ago, for example (the guys even played a shoe shop in my adopted home city this year… to about five punters) – and as such, the hive mind that is the music press doesn’t know how to process them. “What a bunch of losers Dutch Uncles must be if they’re not selling out The Roundhouse by now,” the narrative appears to be. Or if not that, then the complete and utter lack of pop kids carving track titles into their arms promotes a similar shrug of the shoulders.
From where I’m lying (on the floorboards, headphones on, a large glass of Malbec on the go), this perception seems very strange indeed. Some years, and I’ll hum and haw about which album of the previous twelve months will end up being my favourite; 2015, and the acme of favourite long player couldn’t be more pronounced. I purchased O Shudder on day of release, and knew – knew – both instantly and instinctively, that this was the disc for me. And it’s not just me; I’ve had separate conversations over beers and gin with four different pop devotees within the last fortnight, and all – UNPROMPTED – spoke of this album in terms of reverence and devotion. Perhaps I surround myself with strange people, I don’t know… yet what is clear (as least from the angle that I’m reclining) is that here is a record that understands. Understands pop. Understands nuance. Understands intrigue…
…then wraps it up in a wonderful bundle of composure.
Or to put it another way, O Shudder is pretty much the greatest issue of Smash Hits you’ve never read. A double-page spread on Japan. A Kate Bush interview (with free poster). Talk Talk’s first press exposure, Mark Hollis uncharacteristically giggly, the lyrics to The Party’s Over printed on pages at the back.
Not that we’re dealing with a derivative record. Rather, here are eleven tracks that glide amidst the thermals of intelligent, early ‘80’s pop – not borrowing themes and ideas but channelling the playfully dramatic inclinations of the above acts to the point where evocation is the logical result.
It’s also an album that celebrates evolution; less enamoured with maths than on previous outings, and therefore a shade more accessible (without losing anything in translation). Take opener ‘Babymaking’; a cascade of intro pitched halfway between synth and xylophone, Duncan Wallis’ honeyed vocals against distant, melancholic strings. The pay-off arrives early, with the first chorus; a slipping into gear – such bass, such cello, such poise. In many ways it’s a song about sex (rather than love), but it inhabits a narrative in which reflection and self-doubt are never far from the surface; that, and the richness of its sonic contours, immediately signal that here dwells something complex yet rewarding – continued with the funk undertones of ‘Upsilon’ and the intricate, vernal, bass-driven ‘Drips’ – possibly the LP’s most Hollis-esque track.
‘Decided Knowledge’ and ‘In N Out’ both celebrate their ‘80’s cornicing without once suggesting that retro is being applied to ape or appear ironic (the latter hinting very much at Cupid & Psyche 85-era Green Gartside); ‘Tidal Wave’ floats on a crest of dramatic inclusion, whilst closer ‘Be Right Back’ overflows with motif and elegance, the backing vocals (courtesy of Stealing Sheep) adding layers of intrigue and cute balance.
I’m still torn on the album’s finest track; ‘Babymaking’ for ensuring that attention is acutely focused on the rest of the disc, or ‘Given Thing’, which oozes grace in quite astonishing quantities. There’s so much happening on this track – with the strings, the percussion, the time signatures, the measured oohs and aahs – and yet the song’s ingrained equilibrium makes it appear effortless, a swan upon water. Not the most original metaphor, but it does sum up Dutch Uncles rather well. They’ve always been special; the intimacy they culture is a rarity in a milieu that’s always worshipped ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’. But with O Shudder the band have very much moved one step forward – it’s a record that, despite having it toes waggling in an era when ‘Frankie Says’ t-shirts were all the rage, still speaks of the timeless and the necessary. That it also manages to enfold the listener in a caul of trust and longing can only speak of triumph. A majestic record, and an extremely worthy winner of the Album of the Year accolade; I feel honoured to have heard it.