Camera Obscura

Testing the Waters:
Tidal Changes for Camera Obscura

After 17 years of bittersweet love songs and straight-up sad chamber-pop, Camera Obscura have written their first completely uplifting song.

With galloping drums and twinkling guitar, the Glasgow group often paints dainty, fanciful moods. But every cheery, seemingly happy melody on their past four full-lengths is actually dampened by distressing lyrics, most of them rooted in regret, heartbreak, self-criticism or self-sabotage. Don’t bother scouring the singles, either. Even “Marathon Not a Sprint” is pessimistic.

Tucked away in the middle of Desire Lines, released in June via 4AD, is Camera Obscura’s inaugural trip to a genuinely happy place. Unlike the deceptive underbelly of the rest of their repertoire, the overtly sunny opening notes and overall bright palate of “Every Weekday” are never greyed by downcast remarks. That’s because frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell crafted it in tribute.

“We had quite a tough time with it in between records,” explains Campbell. “[Keyboardist] Carey Lander was sick, quite seriously sick. And I guess I had a moment of inspiration. I wrote that song really quickly one night and it was just done in a flash. I guess it was kind of just a love song to the band or something.”

After 2009’s My Maudlin Career, Lander was diagnosed with cancer. The band took a break until Lander was ready to resume, though as the primary songwriter Campbell continued cultivating new material here and there. In the beachy romp she’s bolstered by pride and love for Lander, and you can almost hear a smile. She only interrupts the avalanche of adoration to make a heartfelt deal: “I won’t let you down/ Take all of my time/ But don’t/ Don’t/ No don’t let me down.”

“You know, when something happens in your life and you start thinking about what’s really important…We had to sort of pull ourselves together and get on with doing this, writing songs and making music, even though it didn’t feel like a priority or that it should have been a priority. In hindsight, it was important to carry on with it,” Campbell concludes.

In a show of resilience, Camera Obscura did more than simply chug along. In terms of production, they intentionally took a plunge. Desire Lines marks their first album recorded outside of Scotland.

“We wanted to be challenged, and we wanted to be in a new environment and get out of our comfort zone again,” Campbell says. “We’ve made the last two records by the same guy in the same country. In different studios, but you start getting a bit comfortable and the fear factor goes a little bit. And I think we wanted that back. I think we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could make a new type of record, to make the record that we wanted to make and not just fall in to old habits.”

For both preceding albums, Swedish musician Jari Haapalainen served as the production ringleader. In keeping with the need for change, Camera Obscura opted to try out Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine. They’d been considering a session in the States, so when indie comrade M. Ward suggested Martine and his Portland studio, the band’s interest was piqued. Much like his work with Sufjan Stevens, My Morning Jacket and Neko Case, Martine swaddled Desire Lines with soft folds of whimsy. Weightless, airy effects are common in Martine’s method and, with his help, Camera Obscura gambled again with another new element: High-profile guest appearances.

The effects are deliberately delicate, though – even when Canadian country-noir crooner Neko Case lends a hand on “Fifth in Line to the Throne.” A gentle ripple of reverb trails every twang, as well as Campbell’s tender vocals, which are doubly mirrored throughout the chorus by a surprisingly restrained version of Case’s typically powerful, thick belts.

“I guess that’s the point to some extent,” Campbell says. “They’re backup singers – we’re not doing duets. But I think you can definitely hear that Neko Case is singing on that recording. Undeniably so. But maybe it’s too subtle. The tricky thing was getting them to sing on the record and me being such a fan is I’d be happy for them to sing all over it. So we had to kind of reign it in a bit. [Laughs] Or it’d be like the Neko Case show.”

Desire Lines shows a shift in instrumentation too. The lush strings that embellish older tracks like “French Navy” and “Lloyd I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” have been packed away for now, affording synth a bigger share of the spotlight. But that prevalence doesn’t entirely fill in the gaps left by rich orchestration.

“You know, I think the interesting thing is that technically there are more layers [than previous albums]. But because it’s produced in a different way, it sounds less busy. And that’s good, that means we’ve done what we wanted to do,” Campbell assures. “The two previous albums anyway sound quite full, pretty packed. I think that comes down to trying to create a Wall of Sound effect, which quite often in the past would just really be us five playing live, or six of us…but because of the sound created in the room, it almost sounds like another 20 people in there. That’s a sort of illusion, a lot of times it’s just us. [This time] we tracked in a different way, and we recorded and produced in a different way, and it just gives the whole thing a lot more space and sort of breathing room.”

While much of Camera Obscura’s arsenal of pop recalls Phil Spector’s girl-group golden days, it also revels in ’70s AM pop. Desire Lines’ electronic extras, however, advance the aesthetic into the early ’80s. They’ve still got one foot in the past, though. The spiraling keys of “Troublemaker” and head-bopping beat are assuaged by angelic “ahhs” from Jim James, the album’s other special guest. His tendency to channel Kermit the Frog is – thankfully – so subdued he’s almost unrecognizable. James honestly sounds quite heavenly.

Still, despite all the variables – Martine, the Portland setting and unexpected collaborations – Camera Obscura have retained their signature sound. Part of that’s because of Campbell’s idiosyncratic style, both sugary and stoic, and unmistakably original. The rest can be chalked up to almost two decades of working within the same well-received template.

“I think this time we were probably less keen to go over the old the pedantry,” Campbell says. “We usually have something that’s a bit country and then well have something that’s kind of Motown-y or something. It’s not because we’ve got things to tick off with making a record. It just sort of happens naturally. We kind of tried to avoid that, but it just sort of slips in there. I guess there’s no getting away from who we really are as a band when we try to play, and that’s not such a bad thing I suppose.”

Breaking free of a longstanding mold can be difficult. So besides inadvertently succumbing to their tried-and-true formula, it’s not a shock that plenty of Camera Obscura insignia remain. For one, Campbell’s been known to namedrop. The 2006 reply to Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?” may be the most memorable, but there’s a slew of others. “The Sweetest Thing” mentions “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” and earlier number “Let Me Go Home” calls out the Temptations and R. Dean Taylor. Motown gets another nod on Desire Lines’ rip-roaring romp “Let’s Do it Again,” during which Campbell asks, “Can you see the tears on this clown?” Additionally, Billy Joel is given a shout-out on “I Missed Your Party.”

Campbell is fond of titling songs for people, too. Well, pseudonyms, rather. See: “James,” “Come Back Margaret” and now “William’s Heart.”

“The names are all selected carefully,” she snickers.

The New Year theme is back as well. Granted, it’s only obvious on the well-wishing kickoff from Biggest Blue Hi-Fi, but it’s revisited on “New Year’s Resolution” – again with a contentious, see-sawing relationship as its centerpiece.

“Traditionally it’s the Scottish big, big celebration of the year,” she points out. “We call it Hogmanay. There’s a lot of traditional stuff that goes on and, you know, people being superstitious and stuff like that. I’m not particularly superstitious but when it gets that time of year there’s a lot of emphasis on it, a lot of emphasis to sort of reflect and move forward. And I suppose when I was trying to write songs for this album. It was around that time, it was like Christmas, sort of November, December, January.”

A reminder of mortality, in all its sudden and inexplicable misery, can be life-altering. Maybe it’s what prompted Camera Obscura to explore new territory. But surviving such a warning is a good reason to tread lightly – and cherish the ground already charted.

“[Carey is] really good, she’s well. I think being on tour and getting the record done is sort of a testament to that,” Campbell notes. “I think there was obviously a time that we didn’t know if we would have been able to do it, and do this again, so we’re really quite blessed and grateful that we’ve come sort of full circle. We’re back at work where we…want to be and where we kind of belong. It feels really good.”

Photo by Anna Isola Crolla.