Ominous sailing endeavours, uninvited monsters, November melancholy and personal Edens: it’s a new record from the legendary painters of emotional turmoil Oxbow, but not on the subject matter we’ve all come to expect.
The name Love’s Holiday pinpoints the emotion that’s acted as hidden subtext across the band’s 35-year career, now acting the central idea here. It’s a record of lullabies written for guitarist Niko Wenner’s children and testimonies to lost loved ones, with added drama from Eugene Robinson, one of rock’s most chameleonic vocal talents. The frontman’s take on love here: is it absent, or are we being invited for its festivities? As we’re pulled along in a troubled seafaring vessel, the question never warrants a straightforward answer.
What’s immediately apparent is the band’s (in their own words) move toward carefully constructed pop structures, their own form of transgression against confrontational noise experiments of the past. But like the autobiographical relationship hardships involving infidelity, addiction, robbery and even murder that underplayed the band’s thematic music since their inception, still there’s no rose-tinted glasses there. We’re immediately lost at sea on Dead Ahead, hearing Robinson’s screeching, baying dog dexterity over Greg Davis’ pummelling snare-smashing. The singer owes loving homages to heroes Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass, implementing soulful timbres in the two-chord chorus that manages to alter the second verse’s course with a casual shrug. Complexity masked as simplicity, as is their way.
Follow up Icy White & Crystalline pulls from the post-punk playbook, with added groove, but there’s a crushing low end that makes the simmering instrumentals boil over emphatically. Returning co-producer and engineer Joe Chiccarelli majestically governs the ‘too gnarly for rock, too straightforward for avant garde extreme noise’ mission, tactically allowing distortion to add fuel, but not fire, to classically trained Wenner’s connective tissue riffs. While he plays with fills here, Lovely Murk then showcases Boards Of Canada’s rock-styled ambience and picked-through arpeggios with beautiful gusto. Never has Oxbow sounded so affectedly positive! Not that it’s a linear one-way-up emotional high, as cherubic passages are more chilling and gothic in quality, performed wonderfully by Lingua Ignota.
That’s when the scene change happens. String sections open 1000 Hours, with Robinson poised to croon, gasp, whisper and bellow the short ambiguous phrase “1000 hours in my day / That begin and end without you”, pulling the puppet-master’s strings for the band to rock ominously side-to-side throughout the ballad’s course. Operatic theatrics continue in piano-led tale All Gone that could soundtrack the denouement of a Shakespearean tragedy. If the gain was on full in The Night The Room Started Burning, it’d be symphonic deathened metal, but such is Oxbow’s control here that it plays out far more tastefully. More backing vocals complement the soundscape that Robinson governs with his raconteur-style laments, while enchanting flutes take Wenner’s guitars into greenery on Million Dollar Weekend, another natural space shrouded with fear and frivolity in equal measure: “You drown in love and liquor in the garden of our forest”.
It’s not long before we return to rollicking, uneasy rock-genre tightrope walking with The Second Talk. Echoed country slide guitar with wailing screams? Yes, please! Wenner jabs away, almost ironically hammering on and pulling off with swagger as Robinson delivers jabbed verses with a near tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Not so much fun is Gunwale. In singing “And the cap’n / He shoots himself in both his head and in his arm / While steering near and closer to harm” Robinson sounds like he’s living the spoken action in complete agony, while the overall orchestral sounds fill the ether around the four songsmiths to make the doomed voyage sound strangely hopeful.
With that last, lumbering cinematic closer, letting the distortion ring out over the calamitous sea we just sailed, we’re left unknowing whether the love has arrived or just bolted out the door. Life goes on, it’s most likely a mixture of both. Even with Oxbow’s legendary mania, they’re pared back to embrace light amongst the darkness, using their deft touch as bona fide storytellers to convey extreme human emotions. Love’s Holiday is a welcome left-turn in their now eight-strong discography, all acting like a realistic tumultuous journey we all live through in one way or another.
For fans of: Algiers, Swans, The Jesus Lizard
‘Love’s Holiday’ by Oxbow is released on 21st July on Ipecac Recordings.
Words by Elliot Burr