Doves did not end on a high note. Their last album, Kingdom Of Rust, combined little strands of everything they’d done before, trying to balance atmospheric adventurousness and the more streamlined songwriting of its predecessor, 2005’s Some Cities. But rather than refinement of the past or breaking ground for a new chapter, Kingdom Of Rust felt a little true to its title — tired and worn, the once majestic architecture of Doves’ songwriting now wearing down. The album wasn’t bad altogether, and still had its highlights, but you could sense that maybe Doves had found themselves in a rut. Apparently the band felt the same way. As the Kingdom Of Rust era segued into a greatest hits, the band embarked on a long hiatus. Doves needed a break from themselves, a breather so they could later return renewed once more, as they’d been when the band first arose from the ashes of their original trio Sub Sub.
After sitting the better part of the last decade out, Doves announced their return at the end of 2018; reunion shows and promises of a new album followed last year, before finally manifesting in the announcement of The Universal Want a couple months ago. Having split amicably to begin with, the band’s members — primary vocalist Jimi Goodwin, and brothers Jez and Andy Williams — reconvened when the spirit moved them. Goodwin had been prepping a second solo album, while the Williams brothers were at work on a new Black Rivers collection. Instead, they brought what music they had and decided to see what would happen if they began quietly writing as Doves again, at their own pace and without any outside knowledge or interference.
In a sense, The Universal Want settles into a similar zone as Kingdom Of Rust did 11 years ago. You can hear bits and pieces from across Doves’ career strung throughout the new album, but they are folded in more seamlessly. While it might not recapture the band’s earliest glories — the intoxicatingly murky headspace of Lost Souls and the cosmic glow of The Last Broadcast are mostly referenced obliquely — the long wait and 10 more years of dust and age have allowed Doves to craft an older and wiser comeback album. It almost feels like exactly what they should’ve been pushing towards all along: Their roughshod-then-glimmering anthems always sounded like something magical striving to break its tethers and take off, and with the band members all recently having turned 50, the transporting moments in their music only feel more hard-won.
Across the album, Doves are both mellower and vibier than we’d semi-recently heard them. Their new songs are reflective and patient, with all kinds of otherworldly sounds flickering through the backdrop. If there’s a distinction relative to their other four albums, it often feels as if The Universal Want focuses more on groove even as none of the songs reclaim the trio’s dance music roots. Tracks like “I Will Not Hide” or the liquified funk of “Mother Silver Lake” take material that could’ve followed old Doves formulae and tweak it into breezy lopes built on muscular rhythms.
There are moments — like the surging rocker “Prisoners” — that could’ve plausibly existed on any of Doves’ previous albums, and there are several others that seem ever so slightly recognizable while suggesting new territory. The album begins with a suite of songs — “Carousels,” “I Will Not Hide,” and “Broken Eyes” — that almost work like small mutations of older Doves compositions. It then settles into a center section of more midtempo, ballad-leaning material, before concluding with a stretch that’s starts with the twin desperation/resolve interaction of “Prisoners” and “Cycle Of Hurt” before giving way to the autumnal series of “Mother Silver Lake,” the Big Statement climax of the title track, and the quieter epilogue of “Forest House.” The latter rather directly calls back to “A House,” which filled the same role on Lost Souls 20 years ago, at the beginning of it all.
That isn’t the only instance of Doves actively exhuming remnants of their old selves. Both “Broken Eyes” and “For Tomorrow” actually date back to the Kingdom Of Rust sessions, while the house-tinged outro of “The Universal Want” underlines the ever-present quality of the song’s topic by echoing Doves when they were still Sub Sub. Throughout, The Universal Want threads a particular reunion album needle, summing up almost everything this band was always about while trying to sketch an idea of their future. The one element missing, as it was on Some Cities and Kingdom Of Rust, is the band’s early propensity for slow-burn epics, once their strongest calling card. Their grandeur is more meted out now.
As the band’s first single in 11 years, “Carousels” already provided a strikingly effective mission statement for The Universal Want. Like “Prisoners,” another single from the album, it felt as if it was born from the whole of Doves’ history — its melody is at first understated and then a warm reprise of the endless yearning in this band’s music. But at the same time, “Carousels” signaled tiny evolutions; a sample from the late, great Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen transformed what could’ve again been a more prototypical Doves track. “Carousels” bears neither the pulse nor the aqueous drift of Doves’ past peaks, but instead churns, becoming an elliptical current that mirrors the song’s travels through the years.
“Carousels” was, on some level, also explicitly nostalgic. (Cue Don Draper.) Using the image of fairgrounds and childhood escape, it recalls the band’s formative years, when Goodwin and Jez and Andy first experienced clubs. It’s a reminiscence of their youth and holidays in North Wales. Opening the album, it finds a band returning after some time away and revisiting their origin story in an effort to excavate that initial spark. Fittingly, most of the album from there is about time, and how we spend it.
Yet similarly to how the aesthetic of The Universal Want elides different eras in these people’s lives, so too does it feel thematically fixated by yet unstuck from the passage of time. There is an overarching sense of loss, with many of the lyrics seemingly mulling over collapsing or collapsed relationships and friendships: “I can’t help it if you don’t feel satisfied/ You only ever looked at me through broken eyes,” “Everyday I see your face/ Everywhere I see those eyes/ But you’re not there,” “Spend my days wondering what’s happened to us? Just try and talk to me/ Are we really from different worlds?” and so on.
But elsewhere, the patterns and circles suggested by songs like “Carousels” and “Cycle Of Hurt” define the album. The Universal Want becomes a portrait of three thoroughly middle-aged men grappling with that aging process, yes, but proceeding in a nonlinear, impressionistic manner. Take, for example, a key line from “I Won’t Hide”: “But the lines upon your face recall a different time/ If this is a test to see who blinks before the other/ I will not yield, I will not hide.” How do the lines on your face recall a different time? Do they dredge up images of when they weren’t there? Do they serve as markers for everything that’s happened in between? It leaves the band with a sense of disorientation about where it all went, like in different passage from “Broken Eyes”: “I’ve been dreaming about the past/ Thinking about a friend/ And how we grew up too fast/ Enjoying the years slip past/ You see you’re present, but never here/ It’s been a day, but feels like a year.”
All of this is unified by themes that have gripped Doves from the outset. “‘Prisoners’ is about that yearning that Doves have always had,” Goodwin told NME when the single came out, though his words captured the entirety of the album. “Just over the horizon, there’s always something better. Sometimes we get trapped by our own behavior … A lot of Doves lyrics are shot through with that notion of having a word with yourself.” In a separate interview, Andy Williams said the album and its title are concerned with “the idea of always continuously wanting something and never being satisfied with what you’ve got … It’s about always looking over the wall and thinking that if I can get to that place then I’m going to be happier, and then most of the time when you get to that place, you’re not.”
This is the fog Doves’ music has always emerged from, reacting to an emptiness and trying to navigate life from there, or attempting to make sounds that will conjure that other place. They were always haggard and gruff even in their most transcendent moments — like everyday people trying to bottle up constellations. The long gap between Kingdom Of Rust and The Universal Want only makes this aspect of their work more resounding, like the search is more imperative even as they now have more snapshots and memories to decipher as they go. The slipstream running through The Universal Want makes the familiar touch — the spiraling guitars that wrap around “I Will Not Hide,” the tear-stained sheen of “Broken Eyes,” the grain of Goodwin’s voice stretching for hope in “Carousels” or “The Universal Want” — feel all the more poignant. This is aging men sifting back through what they’d previously left behind, and reclaiming their shared language to try and sort out where they are now.
For now, it’s simply a comfort to have them back. To have more Doves music in the world, but also to hear an album from men who have grown older but are still searching like everyone else; to hear artists who could’ve walked away come back to try and finish what they started. To hear others still trying to make sense of it all and settle into some semblance of peace, or to grasp the wonder they still believe is over the horizon. Perhaps final revelations have still eluded them during their absence. Perhaps whatever small catharses are offered across the album don’t completely counter the ache that forever resides deep in the heart of Doves’ songwriting. But at the same time, The Universal Want opens up a new part of the story — one in which Doves are back, and just maybe getting closer to the answers.
The Universal Want is out 9/11 via IMPERIAL in the US and Virgin EMI in the UK.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Flaming Lips’ melancholic psych meditation American Head.
• Conway The Machine’s as-yet-unheard From King To A GOD.
• Suzanne Vega’s live reinterpretation of her catalog, An Evening Of New York Songs And Stories.
• Uniform’s furious, pummeling Shame.
• Mastodon’s career-spanning odds-and-ends collection Medium Rarities.
• Lo Tom’s appropriately titled sophomore album, LP2.
• Blitzen Trapper’s latest, Holy Smokes Future Jokes.
• Susanna’s Baudelaire & Piano which, fittingly, sets Charles Baudelaire’s words to spare piano compositions.
• Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara’s solo outing Passerine Finale.
• Everything Everything’s reliably arty Re-Animator.
• Marilyn Manson’s We Are Chaos.