Doves – Kingdom of Rust – Throwback 10

Kingdom of RustIn September of 2008, Elbow finally made it.  The middle-aged Post-Britpop Mancunian quintet who’d spent over a decade grinding away on the fringes of the UK scene, cultivating a loyal following and pumping out a series of solid records whilst being consistently passed over by both contemporaries (Coldplay, Travis) and fresher upstarts (The Libertines and the Garage Rock/Post-Punk Revival), won the Mercury Prize for their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid.  The ripple effect for their career was noticeable almost overnight; Kid, which had debuted back in March at #5 only to drop off soon after (typical chart performance for cult Indie bands), rocketed from #61 the week before the win to #7 the week after the win, becoming a recurring chart staple for months after, and the band’s music – particularly Kid’s lead singles “Grounds for Divorce” and the anthemic “One Day Like This” – was almost inescapable from radio, television, advertisements, music festivals, supermarket tannoys…

It was one of the feel-good musical moments of the decade, a hardworking yet perennially underrated band at long last getting their moment in the spotlight off the back of nothing less than sheer bloody-minded hard work and their best record to date.  In fact, it was such a vindicating feel-good moment that many in the British music press and those of us in the know started to whisper hopeful thoughts into the universe.  That perhaps the glow of such a win could rub off on the other critically-beloved but mainstream-adjacent Mancunian-ish middle-aged Post-Britpop group preparing their fourth record, one which had been silent for coming up on four years but for whom circumstances had seemingly conspired to launch them into the stratosphere when they returned.  By the time said fourth album was released, it was damn-near impossible to read a review of it without the writer invoking Elbow in some capacity – hell, even I’m doing it a decade on.  We collectively whispered, “what about Doves?”

This is honestly pretty funny when looked at in hindsight because Elbow and Doves were nowhere near the same level of success prior to Seldom Seen Kid’s breakthrough.  Before “Grounds for Divorce,” Elbow had 5 UK Top 40 singles.  Meanwhile, at that exact same point in time, Doves had 8.  Two of them even cracked the Top 10, a feat Elbow wouldn’t achieve until 2012.  The first of those, “There Goes the Fear,” could’ve hit #1 had the band not deliberately deleted all copies of the single on the same day it was first released – or maybe said marketing strategy was exactly why “Fear” got as high as it did, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on chart strategy – whilst the second, “Black and White Town,” was a fixture in football montages and background instrumentals on British lifestyle documentaries for years afterwards.  Their second and third records, 2002’s sensational The Last Broadcast and 2005’s phenomenal Some Cities, debuted at #1.  They toured with Oasis and U2.

So, it’s weird to view Doves as an underdog band akin to Elbow who were due a shot at the big time.  Yet, the sentiment it true when you listen to the music.  Jez Williams, Jimi Goodwin and Andy Williams began life not as Doves but as Sub Sub, an early-90s House/Madchester trio who scored a one-off hit in 1993 with the Melanie Williams-featuring “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use),” only for their album to flop hard and, in 1996, their recording studio burned to the ground taking all of their equipment and demo tapes with it.  Rising from those ashes, they became Doves and pivoted to a soaring Post-Britpop Indie Rock sound with their 2000 debut Lost Souls.  It was a heavy, dream-like and at-times impenetrable record but in spite of those factors it went on to sell 160,000 copies in the UK by the time of their follow-up, and with good reason.  Lost Souls might have been heavy and often difficult, but it was also a beautiful record made for a specific Northern malaise, one which hopes and finds the beauty in the crushing mundanity.

When they returned for The Last Broadcast, they’d metamorphosed into a sky-scraping Rock band whose Lost Souls atmospherics had been grafted onto instantly accessible Pop songs that sound like the climax of the grandest movie of one’s life even if said movie was taking place on a council estate in Scunthorpe.  “Fear,” “Words,” “Caught by the River,” “Satellites…”  Nothing but bangers front-to-back.  It and the follow-up Some Cities, which went for further refinement over radical reinvention but is still on par to its predecessor with bangers, should have made Doves equally as big as Coldplay or at least those 30 minutes where Travis were getting prominent Top of the Pops airtime.  That never quite happened, though, perhaps because Jez, Jimi, and Andy looked like, well, middle-aged working-class men from Manchester at a time where the biggest guitar bands in the country were pretty boys or willing to court the tabloids with mad-lad antics (or both), something the band expressed disinterest in when doing press for their fourth and so far final album Kingdom of Rust (which turns 10 tomorrow).

So, unsurprisingly, Kingdom of Rust didn’t vault Doves into the same Elbow stratosphere.  Notoriously, the album was kept off of the #1 spot by reining champ Lady Gaga, whose The Fame allegedly (I’ve never been able to find hard numbers to back this assertion up but I remember seeing this mentioned at the time in the NME) did so by less than a hundred copies.  But, for once, I think this was by some design.  Kingdom of Rust took roughly three full years to hash out, beginning once the Some Cities tour wrapped in 2006 and running until early 2009, and that’s very apparent if one listens to the album with that fact in mind.  Although Kingdom won’t be mistaken for anything other than a Doves record any time soon, “Spellbound” in particular has that same semi-drunken acoustic swing of many a Last Broadcast cut, it does demonstrate the band audibly chafing against their defining sound and actively trying to experiment and take greater risks rather than sticking to what works.  They could easily have done so, although Some Cities’ blatant “Fear” rewrite “Walk Through Fire” threw up warning lights on a tank potentially running dry, but instead most of the record’s 11 tracks try pushing the boat out.

What results is Doves’ least-consistent statement, even with the band and Dan Austin’s (plus Jon Leckie for a pair of tracks) production doing its best to tie everything together.  Still, I do get a kind of thrill from albums which hop between differing sounds and sometimes genres from track to track, and many of Kingdom’s grandest swings do connect with gusto.  Opener “Jetstream” was intentionally written as an homage to Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner score, a fact you don’t even need telling to instantly get the connection.  Barrelling ever forward, as if soaring through the air in a hovercar through the dark acid rain-slicked cybercity streets, Jimi’s cries of the titular line ringing out in the background whilst Andy’s motorik drumming charges on.  “10:03” begins as an atmospheric and longing ode to lonely train journeys then at the halfway point bursts into a Big Beat remix of itself which, by the time it’s done, transforms the bookending “10:03/On a fast train” from something mournful into something utterly triumphant.  Tucked away in the closing third, meanwhile, “Compulsion” bites hard on Blondie’s “Rapture” and is, by far, the closest Doves have yet come to their Sub Sub days – it divided critics but I adore the grungy low-light Disco vibe of it all.

With such willingness to expand one’s sound, though, it’s inevitable a few of those experimentations aren’t going to fully connect.  None of the songs on Kingdom of Rust are bad, just that not all tracks were created equal.  “The Outsiders” and “House of Mirrors” are the attempts at big muscular rockers but neither truly hit their mark; the former sets up its Krautrock base within 30 seconds and then piles on too many ever-louder additional elements without fundamentally evolving in any way causing the momentum to burn out, the latter musically never quite nails the paranoia its lyrics are trying to invoke.  And the album definitely threatens to blur together at the midpoint until “Compulsion” turns up; “Spellbound” having been done better on prior albums, “The Greatest Denier” has a brilliant muted hook but still feels overlong even at four minutes, and “Birds Flew Backwards” is hurt by “10:03” having covered that territory better two tracks earlier.

Fortunately, the highs are still stonkingly high: the aforementioned “Jetstream” and “10:03,” more traditional singles “Kingdom of Rust” (which makes a midlife crisis fleeing back to one’s hometown sound epic) and “Winter Hill” (which was a #1 smash in a more just universe than ours where it instead became the band’s first single to not crack the Top 100) are career highlights, and “Lifelines” is a grand old climax even if it doesn’t ascend to the stratospheres of, say, “Caught by the River.”  More than that, and as mentioned, it’s still unmistakeably a Doves record in overall feel.  These sonic hugs made for bumping throughout grey skies and wintery days as counter-actives to a somewhat intangible melancholic longing where, for 50 minutes, the dwindling high street of one’s miserable town reveals a shine however little.  Almost every song on Kingdom references travel in some way or another which doubtless cannot be unintentional since Some Cities was all about, well, some cities.  It’s almost like the album, even more so than Cities, is a journey up and down the English country as the 2000s drew to a close and discovering, for all the surface differences, how disappointingly similar our malaise and dissatisfactions were.  A foreboding bellweather of the decade to come.

I spent so much of this past decade frustrated by the continued lack of new Doves material.  “Black and White Town” was one of my favourite songs as a teenager and its resonance only grew as I got older and more disassociated with my place in the world.  The Last Broadcast – at least today because I really don’t want to be nailed down on this until I’m left no choice – is one of my desert island discs.  Every winter, I would cycle multiple Doves songs into frequent rotation on my iPod (still do).  I wanted more, I needed more.  Neither Jimi’s solo album nor Black Rivers (the Williams’ side-project) scratched that specific itch enough for my liking, and the band never officially broke up.  Sure, Heavenly put out the obligatory contract-fulfilling Best Of compilation almost precisely one year to the day of Kingdom’s release, but they never officially split – kind of like how Disney XD have still yet to officially cancel TRON: Uprising even though it’s been six years since the last episode and everyone involved has moved onto other things.  I needed more, I needed closure.

But at a certain point, I accepted Kingdom of Rust as the band’s end note.  Not out of despair over the reality of the situation that these guys weren’t going to get back together, but instead on a respecting musical level.  Doves mined a specific sound.  Even when they tried to expand their palette as they did on this record, it still fundamentally felt and sounded like Doves.  Many other bands choose to grind away at their specific niche for as long as they’re willing, earning semi-backhanded plaudits like “dependable” and “workhorses,” taken for granted as just being there like comfort food.  Like Elbow.  Doves instead chose to walk away.  They mined their sound as far as they felt they could, then packed up rather than risk stagnation and stasis, leaving behind a cult legend and a near-perfect discography with a natural progression.  I respected the hell out of that.  After all, why am I demanding more when they said all that they had to say?

That was until this year when they finally, after almost an entire decade, reactivated.  And not just any old reactivation; the LCD Soundsystem reactivation where a triumphant festival season tour circuit will lead to that long-anticipated fifth album next year.  It’s a joyous and trepidatious time to be a Doves fan, which is always the case when a band with a near-perfect discography reunites for a new record, but more than Jimi’s assertions that these are “all really, really fucking good Doves songs,” I’m comforted by the implication that they’re back because they’ve figured out what to do next.  Kingdom of Rust bares the marks of a band struggling with where next to take themselves, under an obligation to eventually release something, and it still sounded pretty goddamn great.  Coming back after a decade’s break implies they figured out the new Doves in their own time and sans any pressure.  I cannot wait to hear it.

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