The Delgados’s Chemikal Underground label has brought debuts from Mogwai, Bis and Arab Strap, not to mention Interpol. But the band is an enigma that manages to perform beautifully on one album but completely stink up the next. Whereas 2002’s Hate was the majestic masterpiece that 2000’s The Great Eastern should’ve been, Universal Audio, the Delgados’s fifth release, falters under the missteps of singer/guitarist Alun Woodward.
For those unfamiliar with the Glaswegian’s ambitious folk-rock formula, it usually begins with a song sung by singer Emma Pollock followed by one sung by Woodward. The album teeter-totters between the male and female singers, and Pollock’s voice is such that you wouldn’t mind having to listen to her recite her ABCs. But on Universal Audio, Woodward’s sometimes waivers into uncharted Proclaimers-esque territory.
On opener “I Fought the Angels,” Pollock (predictably) gets the first stab. The song pales in comparison to “The Night Before We Land,” the explosive opener from Hate that boomed with such orchestral brilliance that it signaled Glastonbury invitations on one side and T In The Park headlining requests on the other. Don’t get me wrong: Elements like the floating Rhodes organ or Woodward’s staccato guitar-attack lines keep “I Fought the Angels” pushing forward, but Pollock sounds as if she’s revisiting her live journal with uninspiring lines like, “Everybody knows that we say things we don’t mean.”
Woodward steps up to the plate for “Is This All That I Came For?,” which begins with such promise it almost convinces you that the lack of Dave Fridmann production tricks won’t be missed. Then the song reaches mid-chorus and, even though Woodward’s voice is bathed in reverb, the result is cheapened by the mantra-like repetition of the title.
Several of Woodward’s tracks — the folky feel of “Get Action!,” the creepy/spacey “Bits of Bone” and the Rembrandts-tinged “Girls Of Valour” — fail to match with Pollock’s symphonic ballads (“The City Consumes Us”) and stripped-down psych-pop numbers (“Keep On Breathing”). Though not up to her usual standards, she continues to shine as she did on The Great Eastern and Hate. But it’s too easy to overlook her performances and focus on the shifts stylistically and in production value.
The biggest inconsistency between the previous two albums and Universal Audio is that despite flashes of brilliance in Pollock’s corner, a lack of evocative material comes from Woodward. This won’t be their last album, nor will it be their worst, and I hope the Delgados realize their oversight and make a determined effort to return to pop purity and the lavish orchestrations that made them a threat to everyone’s year-end lists.