Some albums strike a chord in the heart of individuals more than others. There are those that shake us to our bones, the metaphorical dirt and dust of our souls shook clean, leaving us clean and bright. Others are akin to a fire, illuminating and warming us. Of course the flipside to this analogy is that like a fire, these albums can eventually die out, leaving ashes, darkness and a feeling of cold in it’s place.
There are those special albums though, that do more than cleanse or ignite us, they resonate within us. Albums of this breeding often have echoes that are felt for years, decades and sometimes even an entire lifetime. These are pieces of music that regardless of age, genre or popularity, still surrounds you with security.
To me, ‘The Remote Part’ by Idlewild, is one of those albums.
With it being almost a decade since the album’s release, I thought I would take the time to look back at the album, and try to examine why it has grown roots in my soul and why I feel it’s more than just a great album, it’s an important album.
The third album from the Edinburgh based band, The Remote Part was released on 15th July to critical acclaim. It was preceded by the single ‘If you held the world in your arms’ and followed by ‘American English’, ‘Live in a hiding place’ and ‘A modern way of letting go’.
Not only was it critically acclaimed, but became a top 3 album in the charts and within a month of release had gone Gold, selling over 100,000 copies. It still remains Idlewild’s most commercially successful album to date.
More than the statistics though, the album is a wonderfully confident piece of art, full of light and shadow, charm and character. Boldy opening with a statement of intent; powerful, melody driven production aptly supports idiosyncratic, stylistically recognisable lyrics. It is an album that swaggers with confidence, without ever appearing arrogant or unjustified. An outstanding modern rock record that relates more to me now, than it ever did upon release in 2002.
The Remote Part in particular can be argued to have been a breakthrough album for modern Scottish alternative music. Roddy Womble’s confidence to sing in his own accent was something of break from the norm. As Aiden Moffat of Arab Strap states (speaking to the Guardian) “Two decades ago the Proclaimers were…”roundly mocked” for being virtually the only high-profile Scottish act to sing in their own accent; now it’s the norm”. Now I am not suggesting Idlewild were the spark that lit the fire, but along with Travis, Mogwai, the aforementioned Arab Strap and art rock poster boys of the noughties, Franz Ferdinand, they helped make the Scottish accent (which I know is insultingly sweeping as a descriptive, to which I apoligise) decidedly and noticeably ‘acceptable’ with the music industry. Thus, ‘The Remote Part’s success allowed bands like Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, Errors (to name just three) the much deserved foundations with which to gain critical success.
The production and style of ‘The Remote Part’, with its use of strings throughout the album and choral atmospherics on album closer ‘In Remote Parts/Scottish Fiction’ likewise, serves as a reminder that bands such as Biffy Clyro didn’t invent the Scottish ‘Quiet/Loud’ sound, but evolved it from Idlewild et al, for their 2007 ‘Puzzle’ album. Furthermore, Twin Atlantic, who are currently touring their own brand of Scottish post hardcore/melodic alt. rock across festivals this summer, take more than just a passing influence from Idlewild’s love of sweeping guitars, technical hooks and pounding drumming. ‘Out of routine’ could easily have been on Twin Atlantic’s debut, ‘Free’.
Themes of heartbreak, disillusionment, disenfranchisement and the cynicism of society are strong throughout Idlewild’s record. The album even then, touched on the overly marketed and throwaway culture we have as a society. A prophetic warning some might say, of how society values the cheap, short shelf life of music nowadays, rather than the importance of investing in quality.
What we are shown on The Remote Part is confident and subtle songwriting in both the individual songs, and the album as a whole. Featuring the best songwriting of Idlewild’s career to that point, Woomble’s deep, melodic vocals are countered by the band’s frugal and often repetitive lyrics, providing a hallmark for the band. The repetitiveness of the lyrics upon first listen may appear lazy or apathetic, but it is this prudent technique that ensures the themes approached in the songwriting are concise and eloquent. For example, ‘American English’ contains the lines, “So you let me hear songs that were written all about you, the good songs weren’t written for you, they’ll never be about you”. It’s a simplistic writing device, but functions by focusing the listener to the lyrics’ cynical opinion towards relationships, especially those that are past the point of saving.
The use of repetitive vocal melodies and of rhyming couplets ensure that almost every track can be belted out by the audience as if they were all festival anthems. Repetitive phonetic structure in the songwriting of ‘A modern way of letting go’ crafts what could be a simple rock song into an memorable anthem. Furthermore, the chorus effectively portrays how relationships are always easier to analyse in retrospect, “If I know, what I know, losing isn’t learning to be lost. It’s learning to know when you’re lost” yet during the moment mistakes and actions are repeated for classic reasons such as pride, shame, ignorance or nobility.
It’s an economical, emotional and a canny method of songwriting.
A showcase of paranoia, frustration and emotional turmoil, ‘Century after Century’ highlights Idlewild’s distinctive style of songwriting. The lines “Isn’t it romantic, to be romantic, When you don’t understand what you love” focuses on the recurring themes of cynical confusion over relationships within society. Are Idlewild within this song saying it’s better to believe you are in love, than *be* in love? Are people in love with the idea of being in love, rather than finding love itself, making the same mistake over and over again? “It’s the same story told, but it’s these stories that don’t fade” indicates so.
I ask questions because I don’t have all the answers. Do any of us really? Music is personal and should be a journey for the individual to make, a pilgrimage of experience. It is for the individual to come to their own conclusion over what a song might mean, especially as music means so many different things to so many different people.
To this end, this is why The Remote Part still feels relevant to, more so than when first released. The interpretation may change but the message remains the same, like a tree allowed to grow, the shape changing but the core remaining as it were.
Maybe at my current age, the latter end of my twenties, I am able to connect more with this album than I ever could have as a 16 year old. Having felt the pang of heartbreak, the disillusionment of society, cynicism in heavy doses, songs like ‘I never wanted’ with it’s lyrics, “…all this talk but no one will tell me, where and when I need to go” resounds heavily with me. I have felt that directionless maelstrom before, I’ll probably feel it again before I gain my bearings, in the meantime I’ll have Idlewild and The Remote Part as a map for me navigate by, and with a map so well detailed, layered and accurate, I know I’ll find my way home as long as I follow its instructions.
Words: Fuzz Caminski