The Delgados

Universal Audio

(Chemikal Underground; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 6 October 2004

It is hard not to imagine “Everybody Come Down,” the first single from the Delgados’ most recent LP, Universal Audio, set a-jitter against a John Hughes montage, coating a Molly Ringwald/Emilio Estevez dance number with sugary power chords and a gooey, escalating synth line. “Come Undone” even smells of smarmy early-nineties morosity, singer Emma Pollock maybe cooing along Gwyneth Paltrow’s naked slinkiness, Ethan Hawke all brooding artist up on her.

Don’t let it frighten you. These nostalgic returns to candied cinematic farts fail to map out the unassuming scope of the Delgados sound. Universal Audio is a triumph in pop standard, simultaneously reminiscent of all the clichés, soundtrack archetypes, and euphonic exigencies of pure melody inherent in the mainstream pop of the last two decades. Yet it’s still a fully realized, consistently rewarding, original work.

This is not to imply that the Delgados have necessarily forged a whole new sound in Audio. Their penchant for bombastic arrangements was already made clear in the intense neo-folk of 1999’s Peloton and the precise Bacharach-noir of 2000’s Dave Fridmann-produced (“orchestral pop cliché!”) The Great Eastern. Hate, also at the hands of Fridmann, arrived in 2002 and seemed to crystallize the swollen pop majesty the band had always hinted at. It didn’t so much subvert typical pop fare as set out to channel the demons hinted at in the album’s title into arrangements that were bloated with pulpy grandiosity. Which brings Emma Pollock, Alun Woodward, Stewart Henderson, and Paul Savage to today: they’ve finally released what amounts to a straight-out, “stripped down,” pure, unadulterated, sanitized-for-your-protection-but-not-that-clean, pop foray.

Universal Audio restrains itself in all the right ways. “I Fought The Angels” plots a wandering Emma Pollack in the desert of Jesus’ encounter with Satan, shivering organs tempting her to break from a meditative hush. The jagged guitar line that introduces the track with a sinister counterpart to Emma’s mewling rounds the organ, feedback, and chimes of the scant landscape onto a subtle plateau, climbing into further layers of skittering strings and chuckling flutes. Bare pop exercise this ain’t; Audio is just as intricate and meticulously constructed as its sweetly headfucking predecessors. The main difference reveals itself quickly to cursory comparison between Audio and the Delgados greats before it: by being pared down substantially, the instruments assert a lusty individuality, and Pollock and Woodward no longer sound embittered by the need to lunge against a giant wall of sound.

“Is This All That I Came For?” tail-ends unnerving electronic piddle with a pocketed blast of darting guitar and bass, falling into a revelatory chorus of juicy backup wailing and Woodward’s best wide-eyed Morrissey impression. “Get Action!” promises a heavy-handed Western ballad, as Woodward’s sojourner’s drawl pocks an acoustic guitar and mourning harmonica. But a cheery trumpet unrolls the red carpet for the song’s glorious apocalypse, and Pollack carries a fuzzed-out riff into Woodward’s praise-worthy chorus (you were expecting “soaring,” weren’t you?). The phantasmagoric moaning of Pollock’s disembodied voice in “Bits of Bone” provides no warning for the handclap percussion of its creepy chorus. It’s a melodic grab-bag of admirable complexity, leaping out of the drab bookends of new-wave “The City Consumes Us” and the lagging, predictable “Sink or Swim.”

By incessantly using sharp crescendos and hearty soft-loud dynamics, the Delgados wrench every possible glint of glamour from their admittedly relatively traditional approach. “Girls of Valour” begins with mediocre splat-funk, sidling into flawless Beach Boys harmonies. “Now and Forever,” the disc’s best track, reverberates with a dual dirge of Woodward’s and Pollack’s ascending falsettos, serving a confident ode to Kid A’s (2000) titular track, before flying ass-first into new heights of exciting bagpipe-tinted orchestral rock.

For all this, Universal Audio is unassuming. In retrospect, the Delgados have ostensibly chosen to craft an easily accessible “pop album,” departing from the more harrowing listens of their thickly plodding earlier works. But “pop” can only be used here to describe an album of brilliant aptitude: the melodies are concise and blistering, the mix wondrously catering to each sound instead of obfuscating them into hazy drone. The album’s dainty veneer cannot be denied, though, and often the songs of Audio suffer from pathetic lyrics or nauseating sugar-highs. Regardless, the Delgados chisel out a surprising marble slab of pop love. Surprising, that is, if fans were expecting a maturing of the sad operas of their past, and not this joyous gem.