Editor’s note: All of TGTF’s coverage of London 2012 Olympics – at least my jaundiced view of the musical portion of it – is available through this link.
Put out a BBC Sound of… feted album, then scuttle yourselves away for 2 years with next to no public appearances or live concerts: sounds like a recipe for disaster in this day and age we music editors know too well as the fickle music business and its equally fickle daughter, the music media, aka the people who forget you unless you either keep putting out music or keep getting into trouble. Yet Delphic have done exactly that; without canceling tours on the basis of “exhaustion” or pronouncements of mental illness, the Manchester band voluntarily chose the life of hermits since summer festival season 2010, withdrawing from the scene that had ushered them in as the preferable compromise between indie and dance. Looking back at it now, I can hardly believe it was only 2 and a half years ago when ‘Acolyte’ came into our lives and even then our readers knew we were all in for something special.
So it is with some disappointment (or is that editor’s trepidation?) that I bring to you on this Friday afternoon ‘Good Life’, their new Olympic single that premiered Wednesday night on Zane Lowe’s Radio1 programme. Maybe you weren’t a fan of the Delphs to begin with, or maybe you wanted something completely new from the band? Either way, this falls under the Monty Python rule of “and now for something completely different”. So different that when right after its first play I was asked by the band “YEA OR NAY ?” for my opinion of it, I was too dumbfounded to respond.
Listening to it on tinny office speakers on half volume didn’t give me a good first impression either, so after recording that portion of the show, replaying it several times over the course of an 18 hour period and thinking about it long and hard (even involving the Mother Chang for a second opinion of the new release – PS, she wasn’t entirely fond of it either, asking rather innocently, “where are the electronic gizmos?”), I was left with more questions. So many that somehow I convinced James Cook to hear me out over a cup of coffee (he ducked into a coffee shop during one of what seems to be a series of never-ending English rain storms, judging from my mates’ reports up and the whole of the country), and he kindly considered and responded to each and every one of my concerns while having a cuppa. What follows after the video is a summary of what we discussed.
We all know ‘Good Life’ is Delphic’s Olympic single, but will it appear on the new album? Cook says yes. I then asked if we can take this song to be representative of the tracks to appear on this new album, reported by Rick Boardman Wednesday night as dropping in early 2013. (Yes. I can hear all of you Delphic fans groaning. You aren’t the only ones. Bloody hell, 3 full years?) James’ response? That ‘Good Life’ is “closer to the ‘Acolyte’ material than any of the other new tunes. It is [better] representative more of [the] mood [of the new material], not [its] musical direction”. Colour me intrigued. I personally cannot see the similarities between this new one and ‘Acolyte’, but should I listen to it some more? Maybe. The first mental block I had with this song? I could have been the bit-rate on the version used by Radio1, but the vocals, even the ones purposefully layered on as backing, felt blurred and unclear, directly the opposite of the crispness of those on ‘Acolyte’, all of which I think I can safely say were never shouted out at the top of someone’s lungs (what I’m guessing was the kind of ‘party’ effect they were going for on ‘Good Life’).
When I pointed out the dense yet sophisticated eloquence of ‘Red Lights’ and ‘Submission’, Cook countered with, “I think you should expand on what parts of ‘Good Life’ aren’t dense or eloquent. Not every song can fit in the lyric ‘kickstarted by some neurotic desire to be free'”, of the first verse. Point taken, and I will revisit this when I have liner notes for yet to be named album #2, so I know what all the lyrics are. (I have since listened to the song with my special blog listening earbuds several times, again, trying to hash out the lyrics and it can’t be just me, some of it is unintelligible. So I’m still not sold on the lyrics.)
I also wanted to know what effects, if any, working this spring in Atlanta and with American music personnel would have on their new material. Just look at Mystery Jets and Two Door Cinema Club as two recent examples: it seems to be in vogue for British bands to come over here to America to record their cool new albums, doesn’t it? Cook emphasised, “everything was written before we went over” (in other words, the songs weren’t terribly influenced by their production’s surroundings), but the producer and engineer they worked with were responsible for helping them “attain some great hip-hop drums”. It’s not clear to me which producer he means; NME had reported weeks ago in an interview they did with Boardman earlier this year that both Ben Allen (Bombay Bicycle Club‘s long time collaborator) and DFA’s Tim Goldsworthy were both tapped for production duties on the new Delphic album, but we can expect that information and any delineation of which producer did what – along with the band, who have produced in their own right – will come along when the new album is released.
But I had other questions about this ‘new sound’ of theirs. The vocals sound very different to the ones on ‘Acolyte’ and there seemed to be a lot of different voices, so I asked if part of the Atlanta production involved sophisticated vocal effects. While the track features Cook on lead vocals and Boardman on backing vocals as usual, they also enlisted the vocal talents of Rebecca Lovell, one of two singing sisters in local Georgia folk/bluegrass band Larkin Poe. Right, a folk singer on ‘Good Life’ that they “randomly met in Atlanta”? Whoever writes their biography in 20 years’ time is going to have a field day getting this all down.
Something that became very clear in our brief chat is that Delphic, though known as those Englishmen in suits with suitcase after suitcase full of synths, no longer feel constrained by their electronics that helped make them their name. Sampling, not synthesis, and a musical journey through ‘This Mortal Coil to Kanye West to Aaliyah to Neil Young’ all makes this sound like an album that has a billion different influences, but what will the final sound like? Cook promises “lots more ‘song’ on this record, [as] opposed to dance jams”. This made me feel ill. I am a dancer, I am a mover and a groover. We need more dance on TGTF, not less. But he maintains “it was just a natural progression” to move out of the space that was ‘Acolyte’, especially after having a false start with what he called a “techno-centric album in 2010” and then abandoning it in favour of something of meaning to them as artists: “There are still images and emotions [like in our previous work], we wouldn’t have written it if it didn’t move us!”
I know why I had such a violent reaction to and became admittedly torn up about this new single. When you’re waiting for a follow-up to an album that means a lot to you, there’s all kinds of ways the resulting product you receive could go wrong. You’ve set the bar so impossibly high, no mortals could meet your expectations. Do I think it’s better than the Chems’ ‘Theme to Velodrome’ that I reviewed on Wednesday? No. But it’s an apples vs. oranges type comparison, and I’ll tell you why.
‘Good Life’ was never intended to be straight techno or overt dance. If you go by what guitarist Matt Cocksedge reported in their Radio1 interview with Zane Lowe, their demo was submitted for Olympic consideration unbeknownst to them, so there’s no way they could have given it an ‘Olympic sound’, if there is such a thing: the song was already written and done. It’s very convenient the single premiered on Radio1, a channel I never listen to unless there’s a feature I specifically want to listen in for, but the kind of radio station with a fan base that, predictably, eats up this kind of urban pop / not really rap / not really r&b / party vibe stuff.
If one of Delphic’s primary intentions with ‘Good Life’ was to connect with that kind of fan base, they’ve done a bang up job and can expect a massive leap in popularity. But that wasn’t what it was all about before. In my eyes, one of the main issues (if you want to call it that) that ‘Acolyte’ had was its trailblazing ‘intellect’ and this attribute, which to me wasn’t a negative at all, probably hurt its sales, especially in America. You either got it and loved it to death, or you didn’t. After an album that Simon Price of the Independent described as “on kissing terms with magnificence”, I’m left thinking that on this grand international stage on which they knew they would be announcing their comeback, this entry falls short and makes you wonder just what could have been.
But those of you clutching ‘Acolyte’ to your chests and sighing, take heart: Mixmag has reported they’ll be using ‘Clarion Call’ on Channel 4’s broadcasting of the Paralympics, so ‘old’ Delphic is still making the rounds in London, just in a less obvious way. However, I’m not sure where I stand on Delphic reworking ‘Chariots of Fire’, the classic 1981 film theme song by Vangelis, to be played at all the medal ceremonies. Let’s leave it at that…
‘Good Life’, the Olympic single contribution by Delphic, will be released digitally for purchase on Monday (23 July). To cover all bases, the video stream of the song in the YouTube embed above can be listened to by anyone, no matter where you are in the world. If you are in the UK, you can listen to it via Zane Lowe’s Hottest Record in the World blog. Rather confusingly, there were two Hottest Records in the World Wednesday night (the other one was the Vaccines‘ ‘Teenage Icon’, who were doing a live session at Maida Vale), so to get to ‘Good Life’ and the interview, fast forward to 35 minutes in to the listen again stream.