As the band readies their sixth album for release, Clash thought it was an appropriate time to cast a critical eye over what has gone before, holding up the successes and frowning afresh on the missteps. Embrace’s imminent eponymous record is a new start for the Yorkshire five-piece, but it’s been a varied ride up to this point.
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‘The Good Will Out’ (1998)
Having primed a post-Britpop audience with stirringly anthemic finery like ‘All You Good Good People’ (video below) and ‘Come Back To What You Know’, the band’s debut peaked at number one and appeared to establish them as emotive indie torchbearers for years to come. Half of the songs had already been released in one form or another as part of their strong string of early EPs and, as a result, this wasn’t quite the all-conquering statement for which they were perhaps aiming.
Despite this, it holds its own 16 years on, ‘One Big Family’ still tearing past the mid-paced ballads and Danny McNamara’s fragile delivery of ‘That’s All Changed Forever’ retaining its ability to move even the most resolutely churlish. Not quite as grand as Youth’s production on several tracks was intended to suggest, but a fine way to kick off a career.
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‘Drawn From Memory’ (2000)
Something of a lost gem, this second collection was a schizophrenic album for confused times. The British music scene was totally lost and mid-’90s bluster was no longer received warmly. Launching the record with kazoo-driven blues song ‘Hooligan’ probably wasn’t the smartest move on reflection, but it was one hell of a way of announcing the fact the band had moved on.
A peculiar, but often magical, mix of psychedelic indie and grandiose balladry, ‘Drawn From Memory’ was actually a far stronger set of songs than its much-lauded predecessor. Both the title track and second single ‘You’re Not Alone’ (video below) are beautifully honest songs, lyrically raw and perfect retorts to those who’ve persisted with the falsehood that Danny can’t sing. If you’re considering revisiting the band’s past, best start here.
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‘If You’ve Never Been’ (2001)
Despite containing some melodically joyous tracks, this third outing showed that Embrace had lost their way. Songs were overlong, the pace went largely unchanged and the sense that they were now simply preaching to the converted was hard to shake. Lead single ‘Wonder’ (video below) soars like those early songs and ‘Over’ is a delicately meditative way to open a record, full of reflective observations on the terminal decline of a relationship: “You drag yourself over the coals, I know you’re sorry to go.”
The rest of the album is not horrifically awful by comparison, but the penchant for subtlety makes it a hard record to come at cold. In the context of the more tender moments of their previous releases, it makes perfect sense, but it did little to broaden the band’s appeal, leading to Hut Records losing faith within a year. This departure was confirmed with the stillborn compilation ‘Fireworks’, the release of which severing ties completely. Barely scraping into the charts and with only a throwaway studio recording of live favourite ‘3 Is A Magic Number’ to justify its existence, Embrace needed to refocus.
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‘Out Of Nothing’ (2004)
With an appropriate title, the band’s fourth album functioned as a major reboot, both creatively and commercially, helped in part by the donation of ‘Gravity’ as lead single by Chris Martin of Coldplay. Bearing the familiar hallmarks of plangent piano and chugging riffs, it restored the band to the top 10 and signalled a shift towards the middle of the road in pursuit of album sales. While this strategy didn’t let them down, it did shave off some of the rougher edges that made the band so endearing in their early days.
Thankfully, they still had the songs, not least second single ‘Ashes’ (video below) which is a euphoric pop-rock belter destined to be stapled to goal montages forever more. ‘Looking As You Are’ and ‘A Glorious Day’ continue the band’s association with mid-paced, slow-building, heart-rending ballads but the emotive switch at the end of almost every song becomes rather less affecting once it has been established as the norm.
Add in some distressingly brickwalled mid-’00s mastering where even the quiet bits are loud and ‘Out Of Nothing’ now feels curiously dated. Despite this, it’s still worthy of some judicious cherry picking, which is more than you can say about what followed.
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‘This New Day’ (2006)
Pushed by a label wanting more of the same and soon, 2006’s ‘This New Day’ was the album that nearly caused the end of the band. Whereas ‘Out Of Nothing’ had been whittled down from over 100 songs, its follow-up, fronted by top-five single ‘Nature’s Law’ (video below), was turned around so quickly that any traces of the true personality of the band were lost in the fug of radio-friendly production and identikit choruses.
As much as Clash is keen to drive you back towards albums like ‘Drawn From Memory’, please take our word for it when we say that this is an unsalvageable stinker and the time spent back in its company for this piece still hurts us. If any album is capable of making you take eight years out of the spotlight, then this truly is it.
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All of which leads us to the rather remarkable return of a band no longer trying to please everybody and with a clear musical conscience. Driven to distraction by the sound of their last outing, Richard McNamara seized the controls to self-produce this fascinating evolution of the group’s music, introduced by lead single (well, EP) ‘Refugees’ (video below).
Electronic influences are peppered throughout the record, ‘In The End’ touched by the hand of New Order, while ‘Quarters’ is a genuinely unexpected crossbreed of techno-pop-rock that is somewhere between U2 after Bono’s ponytail and before he became a total dick and the robotic pop of ‘SexyBack’.
The album keeps throwing up must-replay moments in a way of which Embrace no longer seemed capable. This is a bold and largely brilliant record that should be listened to with open ears.
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Words: Gareth James