More than a warm gun

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Have you ever wanted to run the slow driver with the cell phone to his ear off the road? Or decapitate the obnoxious, fitted-cap-clad idiot at the table next to you? Or pondered the possibility of a disease that targets those with double-digit IQs or seven-digit incomes? If so, then you can appreciate the sentiments of Hate, the Delgados’ last album. Not that Delgados singer/guitarist Alun Woodward condones such thoughts, but it’s something he recognizes as innately human.

Consider this passage from the Delgados’ “All You Need Is Hate”:

On your way to school, work or church you’ll find that it’s the only rule/Build a different world, hate will help you find what you’ve been looking for … Hate is in the air, come on people feel it like you just don’t care/Everlasting hate, feel it in the people where it’s warm and great, come on hate yourself everyone here does”

Woodward suggests hate is something we can embrace; an idea, he implies, that has far more staying power than the pie-eyed Beatles sentiment it riffs off.

Hate does focus on a lot of negativity, but I think once you actually listen, these are songs which say, ‘I’m an alright guy, but I’m a bit of a dickhead, right, and I can see that in myself,’ therefore when I go out on the town with you, and I know that you’re a bit of a dickhead, I can accept it,” Woodward told a British writer last year.

Speaking to the Metro Times from his Glasgow home last week, Woodward admits to having a lyrical aesthetic that seems to highlight the cracks in the pavement.

“You have musicians and lyricists who write songs and it’s all about ‘I love you baby, can you shake your ass’ kinds of things and then there’s other people. We play much more of the other type,” Woodward says in a thick, barely discernible Scottish brogue. “Everyday life has to be celebrated. There’s too much about things that people think that they aspire to and then it’s a fallacy. Life is hard, but essentially it’s great. It’s really short — way too short — and it’s the simple things that make the difference. But when you’re coming across the simple things, you do see the cracks in the pavement. And it makes you appreciate them all the more.”

Musically, the band’s sound has progressed dramatically over the years, which isn’t to suggest it started from ground zero. Their 1997 debut, Domestiques, already evidenced an exemplary grasp of songcraft, if not as rich in the interplay between Woodward and singer/guitarist Emma Pollock’s voices. Along with its strong pop sensibilities, the album surfs a bit of brackish, scratchy punk backwash, but its follow-up Peloton cleans that up, settling into a rich, variegated pop that’s as warm as the Byrds’ folk while retaining an indie bite.

Everything came to a head for the band with The Great Eastern, its third album, and an attempt at a bold leap forward with wide use of strings and other orchestral elements. As it turns out, it was a great mess.

“Honestly it was like being in a maze and being blindfolded. We had no idea how to finish that record. We tried to mix it. I tried to listen to the mixes the other day just to see what they were like, but they were hideous. They were flat and never went anywhere. The beauty of the songs and the energy are nowhere to be found,” explains Woodward.

Demoralized and dispirited, the band in a state of chaos, they found salvation in producer Dave Fridmann who was able to take the raw tracks and reforge them into what was to that point their best album. It also marked the beginning of a great relationship, as they went back to Fridmann for their subsequent album, the seminal Hate.

Critically lauded, Hate stares down from the top of many 2002 Best Album lists. Fridmann replicates the majesty he brought to the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, creating a sonic bulwark of enormous lushness and power to complement the dark tone of tracks such as “Child Killers” (which compares pedophilia to the way we smother and kill childhood in every day life) or “If This Is a Plan” (which notes “You look harder and tired and colder/Is this what ten years with a dickhead can bring?”). The musical eloquence of these grandiose epics is matched time and again by the honesty of the words beneath them.

The germ for Hate came from the quartet’s composition of music to accompany an art show by outsider artist Joe Coleman, whose paintings have a similarly unsparing quality, focusing on serial killers, sideshow freaks, blood, sperm, violence and death. That tone informed the album.

“The thing I really liked about Joe’s art was that there’s no comment on anything. It’s kind of depicting things as they are, and they’re difficult subjects,” avers Woodward. “So in writing Hate it gave, for me personally, a desire to be honest. … You’ll have these things where people will sing, ‘Everything is alright, everything is going to be OK, everything is going to be good,’ and I despise that, I really do. You have to work at happiness, it doesn’t just fall on your lap. You have to go out and make things better.”

Beginning work on their new album, Universal Audio, Woodward and Pollock were keen to go in a new direction. While still very pop-driven, they have excised the momentous orchestrations. There’s more of a rock element, and some songs are, uh, actually “happy.”

“Emma and I were trying to work out guitar parts for Hate, and were like, where are the guitar parts? Seriously, we played guitar on this, right? I can’t hear it, why is that? And we were, ‘We want a record we can actually feel a part of,’” says Woodward. “By and large this record was going to be mostly played by us, and in a way it made it a much harder album to write because with Hate we’d come to a section of a song and it wouldn’t sound full, it wouldn’t sound right and it doesn’t lift in the chorus and it doesn’t lift in the verse, and it would be, ‘that’s okay because that’s where the brass section is going.’ This time that’s not okay, there is no brass section. And that was a big part of our approach.

“Certainly, we’ve always had this thing where we’re always about darkening things up. I think a lot of the time, me and Emma write really kind of tuneful poppy songs, and then we say, ‘Oh, no, that’s too popular, let’s change that chorus, and instead of that major progression let’s stick in C-minor chords there.’ This time we weren’t going to do that, and that’s why there’s a couple of songs on it like ‘Everybody Come Down,’ ‘Girls of Valour,’ ‘Keep on Breathing,’ that are really poppy songs,” he says.

For a band that makes such gorgeous music, it’s surprising how remote happiness is in their songs.

“I think about happiness a lot. And it’s not to be confused with being content because I think contentment is really kind of a dangerous state. Happiness is about feeling emotionally fulfilled and so to be happy you have to be up and you have to be down. You have to know the limits. There’s this idea of happiness that’s about unmitigated joy all the time, but I think happiness is about the understanding of what it is you are. It’s about understanding all the kinds of difficulties you have,” Woodward says.

“In this society there’s this idea that you’re happy when you have the right car and live on the right street. But it’s about belonging as well. It’s about knowing there are people there for you,” he adds. “These things can go past you in your life. You can wake up and you’re 70 and you realize your life has been about you and nothing else. And your life can’t be about just yourself, it’s got to be about those people around you, otherwise its entire meaning becomes diluted.”

The Delgados appear on Sunday, Oct. 24, at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor). For information, call 734-996-8555.

Chris Parker is a freelance scribe. Send comments to [email protected]
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