Idlewild were never intended to be a graceful beast. A band who early shows were once described by the NME as a ‘flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs’ their performances would usually end with frontman Roddy Woomble careering across the floor, mic trailing, voice screamed hoarse.
But from this adolescent experience grew one of that era’s most remarkable bands, a group whose catalogue came to tackle identity, literature, love, and so much more, doing so with some of the most flagrantly beautiful combinations of music and words you could yet hear.
This process accelerates on second album ‘100 Broken Windows’, but it culminates on follow up ‘The Remote Part’ - a sterling, ever-fascinating record, a record whose balance of immediacy and mystery makes it perhaps the very best Idlewild have yet released.
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It’s a record of phenomenal transition. Where once Idlewild songs were a helter-skelter dash towards the finishing line, now they operated with incredible grace, a wonderful – almost folk-like – grasp of dynamics.
In prosaic terms, this transition centres on the creative fulcrum of Roddy Woomble and guitarist Rod Jones. Growing in confidence following successive lung-bursting tours, the pair relaxed into their artistry, swapping scraps of information for lengthy, potent texts, ones that would reference much more than the underground rock and punk that fuelled debut album ‘Hope Is Important’.
Opening track ‘You Held The World In Your Arms’ is a phenomenal codex for what would follow. Bursting forth, it continually stretches beyond its further reaches, only to stretch again, the string-enhanced arrangement bounding and rebounding while Roddy Woomble’s lyrics speak of transition, of change both sudden and lasting: “Every face / Even the one you saw yesterday / It looks different today / ‘Cause everything’s changed...”
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The use of space is absolutely key to the way ‘The Remote Part’ operates. The title itself should perhaps be taken literally – in order to create the album, Idlewild hired a cottage in Inchnadamph, a remote area of Sutherland, one of the most depopulated regions of the Highlands.
Able to gaze out over the almost endless expanse of an area dominated by incredible, unforgiving natural beauty, it’s easy to perceive this emptiness as in turn opening out Idlewild’s music. Where before ideas were condensed now they open up – witness the guitar riff from ‘American English’ or the expansive arrangement on ‘Century After Century’.
There’s a deeply celtic sense to this use of space, to this vast, horizontal landscape. In the 80s, for example, a clutch of bands dominated by atmospheric arrangements, towering vocals, and a touch of folk awareness – such as U2, Simple Minds, and the Waterboys – became known as the Big Music, and all boasted celtic heritage.
Yet there’s also a directness to ‘The Remote Part’ which demonstrates that, even here, their punk roots remain embedded. ‘A Modern Way Of Letting Go’ is shocked short to the point of brevity, while ‘Out Of Routine’ is almost out of breath by the time its hectic dash shudders to a halt.
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Released amid huge critical acclaim, ‘The Remote Part’ is Idlewild’s breakthrough moment, the point where their innate electricity finally shocked the public at large. Lead single ‘You Held The World In Your Arms’ was – astonishingly – a Top Ten hit, while the album itself raced to number three and sold more than 100,000 copies in just under a month.
Even here, though, the band were changing. Detached from this more melodic sound, bassist Bob Fairfoull departed, to be replaced by Gavin Fox, while touring guitarist Allen Stewart – who helped co-write ‘I Never Wanted’ - joined Idlewild as a permanent member.
Ultimately, any connection to music is personal, and – for me - ‘The Remote Part’ strikes deeper than most. Already my favourite band, Idlewild chose a seemingly remote spot a mere 45 minutes drive from my house to construct it. The album was released the year before I went to university, while Idlewild’s initial hiatus came the year after I graduated. In almost every sense I lived this album; in almost every sense it’s an album of transition, because that was the landscape it soundtracked.
Returning to ‘The Remote Part’ now, though, it’s remarkable how much of it remains unknowable, how previous assertions now feel as though they have been built on shaky ground. A melodic, open-minded record it also relies on the bringing together of opposites, it’s clarity and directness built on playful allusion.
Closing song ‘In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction’ uses two very different vocals, with Roddy Woomble sharing the track alongside another Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan. On the surface the two seem unrelated, but this stark contrast drives the finale to astonishing heights.
It’s worth ending this piece by using lyrics from each:
In the beginning, there were answers
Then they came along and changed
All these questions and their answers seem to change – Roddy Woomble
You will not shake us off
Above or below – Edwin Morgan
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Idlewild will play 'The Remote Part' at the following shows:
17 London KOKO
19 Glasgow ABC
20 Glasgow ABC
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