Doves – The Universal Want

Cathartic comeback from the kings of northwestern noir

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Rock history tells us that there is usually a pretty good reason why chart-topping bands take an extended break. From rehab to road weariness to the age-old ‘musical differences’ – code for mutual loathing brought on by too long in each other’s company – it rarely bodes well.

Doves’ 11-year absence, on the other hand, has, we’re told, simply been the result of midlife drift, the kind that sees old friends lose touch as real-world responsibilities take over. Having explored various musical avenues with their solo projects – Jez and Andy Williams with Black Rivers, Jimi Goodwin with solo debut Odludek – the trio began making music again in 2017, reigniting a 30-year partnership dating back to their days in dance outfit Sub Sub.

It’s a narrative in keeping with an everyman appeal that has seen their combination of romantic, widescreen rock and cryptic, small-screen lyrics – think Cold Feet, as filmed by David Lean – earn them two consecutive No 1 albums in the wake of 2000 debut Lost Souls, with 2002’s The Last Broadcast and 2005’s Some Cities. Kingdom Of Rust didn’t do badly either, reaching No 2 in 2009.

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However, while The Universal Want’s lyrics are typically enigmatic, they suggest that Doves – who all turned 50 this year – have been through the emotional mill during their decade away. In the run-up to release, Jimi Goodwin has spoken of “a lot of casualties in my past… we shouldn’t be afraid to reference the damage that life can do”, and their fifth album comes with a cathartic feel. Densely layered – four of the 11 tracks are over five minutes – it’s also as complex as a Rubik’s Cube, the elaborate arrangements owing more to progressive rock than contemporary pop.

Opener “Carousels” sets the tone. While the lyric is archetypal Doves – a nostalgic reminiscence of childhood holidays in North Wales – it’s musically fearless, building from a sample of Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen into an atmospheric, six-minute soundscape where soaring guitar glissandos and blistering techno bass merge in an “A Day In The Life”-inspired crescendo.

There’s a similarly bullish feel to “I Will Not Hide”. Ostensibly a country-pop cousin to “Catch The Sun”, it manages to shoehorn burbling synths, helium-balloon vocals and a liquid, John Squire-esque guitar solo into four breathless minutes. If these are scene-setters, “Broken Eyes” is where everything clicks into place. A La’s-esque leftover from the Kingdom Of Rust sessions, it’s an instant classic forged from the simplest of materials. The specifics remain obscure – is Goodwin singing: “I can’t help it if you don’t feel satisfied” to his bandmates, or a lover? – but it hits home like a slap in the face, hinting at inner turmoil.

There’s a different, darker kind of tumult in “Cathedrals Of The Mind”. Set against a dazzling musical backdrop where cascading synths give way to a sample from a ’60s Black Panthers rally decrying police brutality and then to a dub-meets-ambient end section, its haunting lyric (“Every day I see your face/Everywhere I see those eyes/ But you’re not there”) could apply to the aftermath of any human tragedy. The emotional Geiger-counter flips into the red on a storming “Cycle Of Hurt”. Almost hypnotic in its despondency, it finds Goodwin asking rhetorically: “Have I got the nerve, to end this cycle of hurt?”, the tension erupting in an explosive guitar solo before an electronic voice repeats: “It’s a trick/It’s a trap.”

This being Doves, the lyrical storm clouds always come shot through with musical sunlight. “Prisoners” is a Tame Impala-informed northern soul nugget reminiscent of “Black And White Town”, while a stunning “For Tomorrow” sees the Rubik’s Cube turn again. Similar in feel to Rotary Connection’s “I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun”, it’s a stone-cold classic, the cosmic desolation of the verses traded for renewed hope in a sky-scraping chorus of “From tomorrow, we will live again”.

The sense that, 20 years on from Lost Souls, Doves have come full circle is made explicit in the final two songs. Starting off as a prog-ish rumination on the pitfalls of consumerism, the title track is a slow burning epic, its “Sympathy For The Devil”-style groove mutating into a minimalist techno outro. If it acts as a flashback to sweaty nights at the Haçienda, a sublime “Forest House” soundtracks the comedown, a bucolic celebration of midlife tranquility.

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The message is clear: Doves’ hedonistic past is largely behind them, but it informs everything they do. With their fifth album they’re taking strength from sadness, hope from despair, and wisdom from experience. In troubled times, The Universal Want is exactly what we need.

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