A mournful, orchestral intro ushers in Desire Lines; it’s a fairly far cry from the sass of their last two album openers, ‘French Navy’ in particular. The strings soon cede to ‘This Is Love (Feels Alright)’; Camera Obscura hardly seem like the most confrontational band in the world, but it pretty much serves as a middle finger to anybody who had the gall to think they might have lost their touch after an extended period away; it’s a wonderfully tight pop song in the typical Obscura mould, but with an oh-so-slight feeling of desolation that suggests there’s genuine attempts underway to move in a new thematic direction.
The sadness that tinges the horns on that track, and the ghostly synths that run under it, embody the sense of instrumental melancholy that underscores the record. The plodding bass and yearning guitar on ‘New Year’s Resolution’ are perfectly matched to its wistful lyrical content, and the sweeping strings brought in on ‘Cri du Coeur’ accentuate the sentiment behind Campbell’s pining vocal; ”I know, I know, I know, I’ll cry”.
The elasticity of Campbell’s talent behind the microphone has always been one of Camera Obscura’s most valuable tools, and on Desire Lines, she’s on masterful form, consistently pitching her emotions perfectly. On the record’s more upbeat moments – ‘Break It to You Gently’ and ‘Do It Again’ included – she’s positively chirpy, whilst ‘Fifth in Line to the Throne’ has her in more familiar, heartbroken territory. Barely-there backing contributions from Neko Case and Jim James of My Morning Jacket are left firmly in the shade by way of comparison; this is a band already in possession of the perfect vocal vehicle.
Tucker Martine was drafted in on production duty on this album – a decision which proved the major motivation for the band to relocate to Portland, Oregon to record – and he’s done a stellar job. His work with The Decemberists is testament to his versatility – he sat behind the desk on the ridiculously-overblown The Hazards of Love and its more reflective follow-up The King Is Dead - and he’s taken his cues from the latter on Desire Lines, managing to take a fairly broad instrumental palette and produce something that sounds restrained, controlled and precise, fitting perfectly with the band’s time-honoured modus operandi.
It took a few runs through this record for me to realise why I shouldn’t have been so surprised that there were no signs of the pressure of expectation; Camera Obscura have only ever made music for themselves. Desire Lines is another gorgeously-crafted pop record from a band that make them look easy; melody, harmony and sophistication are all present in abundance. Four years suddenly sounds like an awfully long time to have to wait for the next one.
Desire Lines is the first Camera Obscura album that doesn't seem to bring much new to the table, though it's hard to complain when they have vocal melodies as infectious and thoughtful as those in the verses of standout "William’s Heart". Here, Camera Obscura clear out the symphonic pomp that overgrew Maudlin to double down on classic beach music and soul underpinnings. Jeremy Kittel's strings swoop through a 30-second intro and then out of earshot for most of the album, discreetly reappearing to add translucent harmonies to the stirring ballad "Cri De Coeur" and the jubilant deep cut "I Missed Your Party", where Motown goes to the sock hop courtesy of a horn arrangement by Mark Gonzales. Neko Case and Jim James add unpresumptuous vocal harmonies to several tracks, easing into the low-key setting. The flicker and caress of Kenny McKeeve's tastefully reverbed guitar never gets much rowdier than on the rollicking trifle "Do It Again"-- sadly not a Beach Boys cover, but with some of that same nostalgic feel. There's not a bad cut here, though it's hard to imagine what a bad Camera Obscura cut would sound like at this point.
It isn't tough to write lyrics about the very beginnings and endings of relationships, when feelings are large and roles are relatively clear-cut. Campbell's gift is to capture the murkier middle regions, especially at transitions or reckonings-- times of acute vulnerability, a quality her voice seems custom-built to transmit. In the first proper song, "This Is Love (Feels Alright)", she draws a scenario that is purely flirty and romantic; the kind of helpless, unthinking giving-in that eventually leads to the hard questions posed on the stunning "Fifth in Line to the Throne": "How am I going to tell my king that I don't trust his throne anymore?" Campbell sings, caught once again, like a moth in a screen door, between staying and going. She's wonderful at lightly sketching the complex dynamics between people who won't say what they both know. "I've been cool with you," she confides on "New Year's Resolution". "The sooner you admit it, I will, too."
On the same song, Campbell makes two resolutions: to "write something of value" and to "kiss you like I mean it." The two are directly related for a songwriter who captures hot feelings in cool songs, and perhaps nod to the relatively long four-year wait for Desire Lines. More deeply satisfying than extraordinary, it seems unlikely to displace anyone's favorite Camera Obscura record, but neither is it a negligible entry in one of the smartest and most loveable discographies in contemporary indie-pop.