The discography of Scottish indie-pop stalwarts the Delgados is a case study in self-actualization. Each successive album finds them getting closer to their niche, making their previous work sound comparatively like rough drafts. From the indistinct Pixies-like thrashing of their debut Domestiques to the ambitious orchestral pop of Hate, each Delgados album up to this point boasted improved songwriting, bigger production and a broader instrumental palette. However, the band has thrown its fans a bit of a curveball with their fifth album, Universal Audio. Just as the better moments of the White Album removed the bells and whistles of the Beatles’ psychedelic period to show what better craftsmen they had become over the years, Universal Audio almost completely removes the orchestration of Hate to reveal the Delgados’ strongest set of songs ever.
Whereas on Hate, the violins and celli shared the spotlight equally with the guitars and drums, Universal Audio places the Delgados’ instruments and voices front and center, with all other embellishments pushed squarely into the background. Singers/guitarists Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward make such a tactic pay off by delivering their most confident singing and writing yet. Like the Beatles, even the Delgados’ weaker songs (what George Martin would refer to as “potboilers”) possess more than enough musicality to justify their existence. Songs like “Everybody Come Down” and “Bits of Bone” are pure ear candy. Lyrically, they make no sense at all, but they compensate for it with good melodies, creative arrangements and an array of sweet production tricks. In little more than three minutes, “Everybody Come Down” gives us a verse that pits wheezing synthesizers against jangling guitars, the band’s catchiest chorus ever, a choppy breakdown with a guitar solo that briefly reverses itself and a mid-song key change. However, they make such information overload sound effortless, a trick of genius that all good pop songs display. “Bits of Bone” repeats this trick with washes of distorted vocals, handclaps, Mellotrons and dulcimers that cover up the unforgivably lazy rhyme schemes nicely.
Fortunately, not only are there are very few potboilers on Universal Audio, but in what is surely a first after Emma Pollock’s domination of the last two Delgados albums, the great songs are actually split evenly between her and Alun Woodward. Opener “I Fought the Angels” finds Pollock delivering clear and plainspoken lyrics about the futility of rage (“Trust, I need to learn again/My words were rarely for a friend”) atop violently strummed guitars and cavernous drumming. Lyrics that sound simple on paper are given extra weight by the resignation in Emma’s voice and the dramatic pauses in between her words. The other great Emma song is “The City Consumes Us,” whose protagonist pisses her life away in reaction to the realization that she can never escape the city she so desperately longs to. “I was convinced in my mind I was not of this kind,” she sings; “Faced with reality, I chose frivolity.”
Alun matches Emma with the second track, “Is This All That I Came For?,” which chastises a friend who has problems asserting himself. He one-ups that song three tracks later with “Get Action!,” a bombastic “chin up” to a friend who has been knocked down by the hurtful words of others. Woodward sings in the second verse, “Every single person who has told you that you couldn’t lives in fear that you’ll achieve the things they think you shouldn’t.” The song begins with a spaghetti-western melodica intro and sneaks in a T. Rex allusion during a chorus that puts a lilting vocal melody on top of a punishing Mogwai-style crescendo. It might just be the best song on Universal Audio.
The other major development on this album is the traces of actual optimism that creep into the lyrics. The resignation and cynicism of Hate is still present in spades. When Emma sings “This is how it feels to drown” on “Come Undone,” the distortion applied to her voice makes her sound as if she’s truly drowning underneath the droning piano and hissing cymbals. “Keep on Breathing” describes life as “Just another list of consequences of things that we do/Just another set of happenings that we have to live through.” This time around, though, the sadness is equally counteracted with a willingness to fight oppressive circumstances instead of merely giving in. Alun appends the reaffirmations of “Get Action!” four songs later on “Girls of Valour” with the admonition, “Come on, fight on…now is not the end.” “Now and Forever” closes the album with an incantation, “Come…let’s get life,” that is sung in exquisite multipart harmony.
Whereas Hate was a bummer even at its bounciest, Universal Audio is more even-keeled. Life still sucks, the Delgados seem to be saying now, but you can’t be sad about it ALL the time. Universal Audio, a title that at first sounds generic, turns out to be appropriate on more than one level. This is an album that can be accepted by a much broader audience than anything the Delgados have done before, not just because it’s a bunch of straightforward three-minute pop songs, but also because it is a much more multidimensional analysis of the human condition than any of their previous work.
Artist Website: http://www.delgados.co.uk
Label Website: http://www.chemikal.co.uk