Music Reviews
Desire Lines

Camera Obscura Desire Lines

(4AD) Rating - 8/10

Depending on where you stand in matters of the heart, Tracyanne Campbell can either be the supportive friend that offers great advice, or the woeful victim who will talk ad nauseum about her problems. Listening to Camera Obscura albums require a selfless, loyal reciprocation – for a little over a decade, we’ve witnessed the rocky path she constantly treads, and have lost count of how many times she stumbles on her dismount and gets back on her feet. You’d think she’d taken enough hurt and become a single recluse by now, but she prevails, with a dogged determination that, yes, one day she’ll find a love that only exists in romantic comedies and manga graphic novels. She does have a knack to translate her illusory hopes into bitingly real stories, though, and self-analyzes her sobbing condition with a bluntness that shows heaps of courage.

Campbell even gives some silly, yet sage insight in the way she names all Camera Obscura albums; especially My Maudlin Career, which reads more like a huffing sigh to describe how she’s made a living by becoming the sad girl that finds consolation though her music. Desire Lines reveals another poignant passage in her diary – she’s always been prone to over think things with disastrous results, so why not take the most easily navigated route for once? Granted, things aren’t any easier this time around, but her confidence has gradually seeped into their lustrous orchestral pop compositions. She’s not the brokenhearted, bed-ridden depressive anymore. Campbell’s resplendent tone delights with the plaintive cry of classic torch singers; instead or feeling pity or sympathy, we’re now in the presence of a commanding performer who doesn’t have to sacrifice an inch of naiveté to make an impression. She elevates the “twee” aspect that’s associated in their songs with a maturity that’s leagues away from the flippant disposition the term usually gets.

One key component that gives Camera Obscura that exquisite stateliness is also its most dismissed: the actual band itself, who are so tight-knit together they almost give the impression of well-oiled studio musicians hitting every note with impeccable detail. The soulful incandescence of This is Love (Feels Alright) isn’t new territory for Campbell and company, but they now harness Motown pop with a purity that could easily appeal to the spectra of multiple generations. Campbell goes from being a “good tease” to “struggling for survival” in Troublemaker, which does have its fair share of jangly guitars, but they’re almost secondary to the swinging rhythm section. But it’s all in the small, more progressive details that still separate them from the proper neatness of adult contemporary – the descending change in tone in Troublemaker, the permeating synth ambiance of William’s Heart, or the cool, tropical allure of Every Weekend.

Such Baroque ebullience almost comes like second nature to Camera Obscura, and in Campbell’s deeper explorations of wit and sensuality, there’s a notable synergy that results from combined creative concentration. They act upon it with effortless breeze in sprightly foot-stomper Do It Again, in which Campbell poses herself as the fully competent performer (you were insatiable/I was more than capable) who has a burning desire for passionate lovemaking. The tenderly tweaked chords of spacey country ballad Cri de Coeur are diminutive in comparison to the grandness of the orchestral string section, yet create a larger impact that’s tantamount to Campbell’s direct monologue about trying to scrutinize the what could’ve beens of a past love.  You’d think that abiding to that simplistic approach would get wearisome by now, except they’re the kind of act that overturns outmoded conventions with a newfound élan – the Brill-Building evoking Fifth in Line to the Throne could’ve been just that, except its haunting melody and crescendoing guitar solo bridge work only stress a disconsolate mood that etches in the mind with a thorny, lingering resentment. 

Which makes Desire Lines less about making a strenuous musical departure than sticking to what works best for Camera Obscura. There aren’t any turning points or surprising reunions in the songs Campbell writes – they usually either fall by the wayside when things get too complicated, and if there’s any hope, she’ll have that nagging uncertainty that the journey to a resolve is near dear impossible. Campbell continues to struggle at finding closure, which seems to be the recurring theme in every Obscura album – like in I Missed Your Party, where she seems to think that tucking herself in multiple sheets and re-watch Flashdance is a better option than “draining the Kool Aid”, one of the most jocose lines she’s ever concocted. She holds all residual emotions with a masochist tendency to self-abnegation, which really is how love inexplicably works in many ways, and decides to end by stating to her significant other, “I vote for you now”. In her eyes, there’s never a finality to any unfortunate situation, and we’ll continue to witness that struggle for as long as she decides to put it into song.