February 11, 2003

The Delgados "Hate"

Over the last five years, Dave Fridmann has introduced more indie-rock bands to the art of orchestration than any other producer. Check the man's resume and you'll see a host of bands (like The Flaming Lips, Mogwai, Home, and Elf Power) whose sound he augmented with a flood of classical and electronic flourishes. He's got a knack for taking bands attempting florid arrangements through limited means and giving them MUCH broader palettes to work with in order to realize their potential. The first thirty seconds of Hate's opening song, "The Light Before We Land," are a perfect demonstration of Fridmann's influence: a string section, a choir, and crashing distorted drums produce a crescendo that literally bursts through the speakers. Once the first verse begins, though, the layers are stripped away to reveal the rock quartet underneath: the meandering bass, the trebly guitars, the understated drums, and most of all, the vocals of Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward. Even as they devote an entire album to the concept of hate, their voices ooze a reserve and resignation that most other bands couldn't manage. They'd either overdo it with raging histrionics or under-do it with bored apathy.

Some critics have accused the Delgados of using Fridmann to hop on a bandwagon, but a tour through the band's discography will prove that his sound is something the band has been inching toward for a while. Their sophomore album Peloton had a couple of orchestral flourishes, but they felt tacked on to songs that didn't really need them to begin with. Their next album, The Great Eastern, had the reverse problem: instead of being an afterthought, the orchestration became a necessary building block for the songs, but the songs themselves needed work. Many of them sounded like the best parts of two or three songs awkwardly stitched together. Although I find this kind of attention deficit disorder endearing in many other bands, I don't think it suits the Delgados very well. Fortunately, Hate rights the wrongs of their previous two albums, with ten superbly constructed songs that musically sound like Mogwai covering the Left Banke and lyrically examine the various stages we go through when we're absolutely disgusted with our lives. It helps that "The Light Before We Land" is ultimately an anthem of hope: in the song's chorus, Pollock and Woodward beautifully harmonize, "If we can hold on, we can fix what is wrong---buy a little time for this head of mine."

The second song, "All You Need Is Hate," is both the album's catchiest and most facile song. It's basically an inversion of the Beatles classic "All You Need Is Love," from its title on down to the intentionally hokey lyrics ("Hate is in the air/Come on people feel it like you just don't care") and the George Harrison-style slide guitar that appears in the chorus. "Woke from Dreaming" isn't as easy a read: Emma uses hitchhiking and strangulation imagery to evoke a mood of fright, while the distorted drums and digitally cut-up children's choirs turn the music into the soundtrack to an art-house horror movie. In mid-song, though, the band changes from a minor key to a major key, and this lets a much-needed ray of light creep into the darkness. Moments like these are indicative of how quickly the Delgados have grown as songwriters and arrangers. "The Drowning Years" is a personal favorite of mine, not just because it's a great song, but because I can personally relate to it, as it is sung from the point of view of a man watching the decline of a schizophrenic lover. In "Coming in from the Cold," Emma urges a frustrated and lonely friend to fix his problems by escaping town and starting a new life, against a standard baroque-rock backdrop intermittently interrupted by booming programmed beats.

"Child Killers," which Alun sings, is the album's bleakest song. My interpretation of it is based on its title, the lyrics' allusions to domestic abuse, and the alterations made from one chorus to the next ("In truth our love was the night--the truth is our lives were shite"). I believe that the narrator is singing about the demise of a relationship with a girl whose baby they aborted. "Favors," which Emma sings, tells an equally intriguing story: it begins with the narrator beating up her ex's new girlfriend, and ends with the narrator trying in vain to drink her woes away. Lyrically, "All Rise" barely makes sense, but it gets by on its sea-shanty atmosphere and indelible vocal melody. This brief slip-up is redeemed by the last two tracks on the album proper. The funereal organ and faraway distorted vocals at the beginning of "Never Look at the Sun" suggest Sigur Ros with intelligible lyrics. The song quickly blossoms into an anthem of hope ("There's one life worth saving/It's not too late"), which couldn't come soon enough after sitting through songs about schizophrenia, abortion, and violence. "If This Is a Plan" finds Alun kissing a woman off in the bluntest of terms: "You look older/You look harder and tired and colder/Is this what ten years with a dickhead can bring?"

The North American version of Hate adds two bonus tracks that, unsurprisingly, don't work well with the rest of the record. "Coalman," like so many songs from The Great Eastern, sounds like a medley of two different songs; if your ears are as good as mine, you can even hear the edits in the transition from the verse to the chorus. The otherwise brilliant "Mad Drums" would fit better on a Stereolab record than it would on Hate. However, these are minor quibbles against a record that finds the Delgados completing the process of self-actualization. Emma and Alan have matured into confident singers and songwriters, and the band has finally grown comfortable in its own sound. Now that they've done these things, I'm expecting the Delgados' next record to be amazing--especially if they keep Fridmann on board.

---Sean Padilla

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