The Big Listen: Doves – The Universal Want
A first album in over a decade from these much-loved Mancunian lost souls. Does it match up to their past glories?
Jez Williams of Doves. Image: Harry Herd / Redferns
“Hello old friend, it’s been a while, it’s me again,” sings Jimi Goodwin with evident relish on the sweeping Northern Soul-influenced Prisoners, six tracks into Doves’ first album in 11 years.
Driven along by strummed acoustic chords and an undulating bassline, recalling both Richard Ashcroft’s A Song For The Lovers and The Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age Of The Understatement, it was the song that led the band to realise they had a full fifth album in them.
Strings swirl, reverb-lavished vocal harmonies rise and Jez Williams unleashes a pair of scintillating solos flecked with fuzz and crackling tape echo. It’s one hell of a track and a vivid example of the studio mastery this celebrated trio have amassed since forming dance act Sub Sub a lifetime ago in 1991. Or as Jez Williams neatly puts it: “We play with our hearts as a band for the feeling, but with our heads the rest of the time at the computer.”
When Doves hit the pause button on their career after 2009’s Kingdom Of Rust, it appeared they may have made their last album; they sounded creatively spent. Goodwin drifted off to make a solo record, Odludek, and Jez and Andy Williams formed Black Rivers. It was, then, a heartening surprise when they returned to play The Royal Albert Hall in March 2019.
Little did we know, the trio had already been working behind the scenes on what would become The Universal Want. Two of the 10 songs here were salvaged from the sessions for Kingdom Of Rust, others came into being as early as 2017, when the band gathered in the Peak District to work on early ideas. The initial spark came from the funky shuffling Mother Silverlake, with the supreme Broken Eyes following soon after. Doves had got their mojo back. “There was a willingness,” recalls Goodwin. “We were all rooting for it. We fell back into it nicely together.”
The result is a heady fusion of rhythms and styles, an album of grand, expansive songs that spread their wings from the seemingly every-day minutiae and soar. It feels like the culmination of everything Doves poured into the first chapter of their career, yet more mature and fulsomely orchestrated.
The album’s opening track, Carousels, is a certified banger, a colossal archetype of the blueprint the band devised on 2000’s Lost Souls and 2002’s The Last Broadcast, that left Goodwin “blown away” when the Williams brothers played him the demo. Propelled by an irrepressible Afrobeat snare pattern half-inched from Tony Allen, it depicts the band returning to the fairgrounds of their youth, its chorus an explosion of colour underpinned by a gleefully kinetic riff, alongside synth textures and cut up vocal sections. A Day In The Life-style-swirl that melts into the briefest of guitar breaks sees it threaten to become an epic, but the trio show knowing restraint and we’re done.
Williams plays a blinder throughout. His tonally exquisite solo elevates the album’s initially understated second track, I Will Not Hide, which was presented near-complete by Goodwin to the band. A simple four-chord-progression gives way to a delicious descending lead line that is briefly swallowed up by wah and then emerges and powers on to the death. The guitarist’s contributions to the earnest Cycle Of Hurt, on which he shares vocals with Goodwin, are exceptional, too.
For Tomorrow feels apposite for the lockdown fug we find ourselves in. Again, Williams’ playing and tone are to die for, winding up gradually as the song gathers momentum, but always retaining a sense of refined grace, Goodwin’s rousing vocal offering tantalising hope of escape: “For tomorrow we will breathe again, no more sorrow we will love again, I hope, I hope.”
You won’t hear much guitar on Cathedrals Of The Mind, but with its arpeggiating synths, electronic drums and sadly topical vocal sample from a Black Panthers rally, it’s a majestic, sobering piece, with its yearning refrain of “Every day I see your face… but you’re not there”.
“How long ’til we see what we really want, what we really need,” asks Goodwin on the stately two-part piano-led title track, a blissful return to the band’s Hacienda salad days that serves simultaneously as a critique of Tory austerity and unfettered consumerism.
All three of their members having turned 50 this year, it appears Doves have rediscovered what it is they want and really need; a decade away has reignited their passion to create and reminded us that this is a trio far greater than the sum of their parts. It’s easy to forget just how good they are, how much the music world missed them.
Jimi Goodwin spoke in the press release for this album of the “casualties in my past”. You have to hope that having exorcised any remaining ghosts with this quite stunning comeback album, this is not a fleeting rekindling, but the beginning of a second act for Doves.
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