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Pagan Poetry


Idlewild: The Remote Part

Parlophone, 2002

Rating: 4.2



Posted: August 25, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's hard to imagine stranger bedfellows than rock and roll and poetry. While the two forms do find frequent occasions for intersection -- say, Mike Scott lifting Yeats' "The Stolen Child" on the Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues -- they remain distinctly different beasts, with different rules and rhythms. (Yes, this is an over-simplification, but bear with us here.)

So when the booklet for Scottish quartet Idlewild's newest release, The Remote Part, bears a slogan/admonition/credo to "Support your local poet," and when Glaswegian poet laureate Edwin Morgan freestyles some poetic verse at the end of the title track, some alarm is understandable. After all, previous attempts to overtly mix the two forms have had less-than-stellar results (anyone remember the intriguing but interminable Blue Aeroplanes?).

But The Remote Part, thankfully, manages (mostly) to avoid tripping over its poetic aspirations into dour pretension. Indeed, singer and lyricist Roddy Woomble -- he possessed of one of rock's great monikers -- does a credible job of tempering his increasingly literate sense of lyricism into insistently melodic songcraft. And as Woomble splits the difference between journal-entry pontifications and go-for-the-guts anthems, his bandmates adeptly follow suit, streamlining the sharper, angrier edges of 2000's stirring 100 Broken Windows for a grander, more epic approach. If Hope Is Important and 100 Broken Windows were, in different ways, perfect albums to be reproduced in smoky, sweaty clubs, The Remote Part is Idlewild's arenas-and-stadiums record.

It's a jarring transition for a band originally known for its raw, youthful and raucous inflammability, but a nonetheless fitting and increasingly natural one. The opening "You Held the World in Your Arms" and subsequent "A Modern Way of Letting Go" perfectly illustrate the point: The former, a huge hit single in the U.K., swings for the stadium fences, with a spirited singalong chorus and a sweeping arrangement complete with galloping strings. And immediately, as if in a hurry to prove the band's street credentials are still in working order, "Modern Way" dogs its heels with a sharp, insistent rock riff, complete with a pogo-worthy bridge to the chorus, and a matching, spiky vocal delivery simpatico with the brighter moments from Windows.

But if much of the rest of The Remote Part mimics the dichotomy of the opening one-two punch -- "(I am) What I am Not," "Out of Routine" and "Stay the Same" charge forward with a scrappy, vaguely New Wave-ish intensity, while "I Never Wanted," "Tell Me Ten Words" and "Live in a Hiding Place" mine calmer, more atmospheric furrows -- it's the stirringly anthemic "American English" that sets Idlewild's new standard; all expansive, sing-it-loud bravado and earnestness in the arena-friendly mode of latter-day U2. Woomble's lyrical directness strikes a delicate balance between sentimental and bracing: "You've contracted American dreams/ I require you to stop/ and look up." It's all the more impressive given his ever-increasing penchant for verbosity, which when it works is commendable for its tweaking of rock-lyric convention; not every writer, or singer for that matter, could get away with a line like "Maybe you're young without youth/ or maybe you're old without knowing anything's true/ I think you're young without youth" or "What will you find when you think that nothing's true?/ Maybe it's that nothing is new." But Woomble's evolving instinct for wrapping such wordiness in straightforward hooks makes such lines sound downright inspirational, and his impassioned delivery of a sentiment like "The good songs weren't written for you/ and they'll never be about you" drives its cutting poignancy straight into the listener's most vulnerable recesses.

But not every track on The Remote Part lives up to the musical and lyrical effectiveness of "American English" or the oddly emotionally tender "Live in a Hiding Place" (which boasts its own improbably rousing, loquacious chorus "And you're full of facts/ but not things that could/ add up to words/ think about meaning more as an after word/ as in afterward"). "Tell Me Ten Words" stumbles over its opening gambit -- "I have to stop saying "to be honest," it's not a real defeat" -- and never recovers, despite a memorably hummable refrain toward the end. "Century After Century" similarly staggers ("Isn't it romantic/ to be romantic/ when you don't understand what you love"), if only momentarily. The penultimate "In Remote Part," however, indulges in some truly wince-worthy moments ("I'll wait 'til I find/ The Remote Part of your heart"), and its segue into Morgan's own "Scottish Fiction," while interesting, nevertheless feels forced.

But it's hard to complain too loudly about an album whose main fault is that it occasionally hits a bit wide of its literate, poetic mark. The Remote Part may noticeably lack the punchiness of 100 Broken Windows, but it's Idlewild's definitive moment, one that should (hopefully) quash noisome and grating comparisons to R.E.M. or the Pixies (comparisons this writer has yet to understand). Idlewild comes into its own distinct identity on The Remote Part, an album that laudably melds persistent melodicism and sometimes-grandiose lyricism (did someone bring up U2 earlier?) into some moments of sweeping exhilaration.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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