You might be familiar with the old saying ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and while that phrase is mostly used in the context of human relations it can also be applied to many other aspects of life. Music, for example. When one of your favourite bands returns after a long period of time you can’t shake off a feeling of excitement and nervousness about such a comeback. The stakes are high, the expectations are pretty much impossible to be matched because whatever is arriving now has to compete with the nostalgia-loaded past that means so much to you. That’s exactly the scenery I find myself in with Manchester’s very own Doves who are about to release their first album in over a decade. During the first half of my Twenties the trio consisting of Jimi Goodwin and brothers Andy and Jez Williams was one of the defining bands in that time. Their uplifting Britrock offered some life-defining anthems for me in those formative years, including the stunning Pounding, the pumping Black And White Town, or the mighty There Goes The Fear. I could continue this list forever. None of their first four albums sucked, even the B-Sides were all brilliant. Maybe it was their talent for harmonies and great melodies or Goodwin’s warm voice that offered me so much comfort. Their music had that shimmering and hazy vibe that was influenced by the band’s own roots in the British dance scene as well as tender psychedelic vibes and good old fashioned guitar-based songwriting. That combination really spoke to me and these songs were just great compositions, the lyrics left enough space for interpretation and … yeah, it arrived just at the right time in my life. Then the band vanished ten years ago, announcing an indefinite hiatus and if you’ve been in the music scene a while like me you know that this term usually works as a nice way of saying ‘that’s it, folks’. Only, it wasn’t.
“We knew from the beginning that the hiatus would be quite long, longer than just three or four years but rather seven to eight,” explains Jez Williams to me. It’s the late summer of 2020 when I phone up the guitarist to talk about The Universal Want, the band’s forthcoming fifth studio album. Jez seems happy and relaxed although the current climate of the Corona crisis is making him think a lot about the present and future. Indeed, the world has changed a lot since Doves last released a record, 2009’s Kingdom Of Rust. And although I liked the album back then the circumstances (label pressure, writer’s block, a tour booked too early before they were happy with the entire album) surrounding it actually lead to this long hiatus as Williams explains to me. Throughout the 1990s the three Mancunians were already quite active in the dance scene with their project Sub Sub before they started their second career as Doves and went on a ten-year winning streak (including Mercury Prize nominations, number one albums etc.). After almost twenty years the tank was empty. “Following our final gig in Manchester in 2010 we didn’t even discuss the whole thing,” Jez remembers the moment, “We instantly knew that this was the end for a bit.” It was a mutual understanding between all three of them, they didn’t split up, they didn’t fall out. They were just tired of everything.
“We needed a break from the touring-writing-touring-writing-cycle. The albums took longer and longer to make and the process got more difficult. It was the same thing over and over again and we knew we had to get out of this zone.”
From the outside the decision felt quite definite. In 2014 Jimi Goodwin released a solo record, in 2015 the Williams brothers recorded an album as Black Rivers and both releases were pretty good but when I asked them about a potential Doves reunion back then they remained close-lipped about it. The solo adventures weren’t necessarily about ‘breaking free from their past’ and it wasn’t about learning new things (both albums sound quite a lot like their main band), it was just a practical thing as Jez tells me: “We knew we would take a break from Doves but we had a few songs written. Me and my brother, we wanted to keep things going and we already started messing around with ideas. We don’t live that far from each other so that was quite a natural thing to do. It was as simple as that.” Jez laughs, knowing that a temporary split of every long lasting band is automatically associated with big fights and egos. Well, not in the case of these lads, apparently. I wish I would’ve known that back then. We both can’t help but laugh about that fact.
“There was less to give a crap about”
Flash forward to the here and now. When I listened to The Universal Want for the first time it felt quite weird, simply due to the fact that there’s new music from this band that needs to find a place in your heart right next to the one that’s been sitting there comfortably for the past 16 years. But in the end, it’s probably way more a Doves record than its predecessor. It feels like a warm return, from the typical uplifting Britrock anthems like Prisoners and Broken Eyes, to the big midtempo ballads like Cathedrals Of The Mind or Cycle Of Hurt. It sounds quite organic, very pure and apparently that’s the sound the three songwriters were aiming for. “We didn’t want it to overload with technology, we were trying to capture something quite instantly,” Jez explains. It feels smooth and unrushed and that’s also due to the circumstances of its creation. By breaking the cycle back in 2010 Doves are now in the luxurious position of playing the game by their own rules. They first started talking about a new album in late 2017 and began the writing and recording in 2018. The whole process was defined by one simple credo: It’s our music, we make the rules, we define the tempo. That was the main change to the Doves of the 2000s. “We get in the studio for a week and if we weren’t feeling it we simply wouldn’t do it,” Jez tells me. “That’s a mistake we made in the past – working on our music when we didn’t feel it.” The fans didn’t know, the label didn’t know and in the end that gave the band the amount of freedom and creative boost they needed to restart the machine.
“The trick thing about restarting this machine was not looking at it this way. We definitely didn’t went in thinking about the big machinery that goes with it. We kept the environment small. We didn’t want any external pressure, we just wanted to have fun.”
And that’s something you sense on The Universal Want, it returns to a light-hearted pureness of the band’s first three records, something that was probably a bit lacking on Kingdom Of Rust as I now sense in retrospect. And although they stretched the whole comeback process over a two-year long period the album itself came together quite quickly. The changing landscape of the industry also resulted in this new ‘zero fucks’ attitude as Williams explains. “We haven’t spoken to the label in eight years and the entire personal changed. All the people we knew were gone.” Now, a big label needs a band like Doves more than the other way around and this mutual support in combination with a maximum amount of creative freedom was a helpful ally for The Universal Want. Well, and the age factor is also important as all members turned 50 this year. “There was less to give a crap about,” he says while laughing. “You just do what moves you. It’s all about trying to entertain yourself and try to enjoy the process.” Doves needed to free the recording atmosphere from all the pressure of the past in order to function again as a unit and that made them more fearless than ever, resulting in an album that really spreads love and solace in a time of chaos and uncertainty. It’s what Doves were always best at, they aren’t the band to deliver specific political statements, they keep it vague and are more about a universal ‘all you need is love’ vibe. The world is gloomy enough. Why adding more darkness to it?
The art of saying ‘No’
Dystopian despair might be en vogue right now but Doves aren’t giving in to it, instead they found themselves revisiting the vibe of their early days, one that was shaped by the dance and rave scene of the late 80s and early 90s, one that really celebrated unity, diversity and love in an unpretentious way. Williams describes it as “the sound of emotional love” and in parts this new album really breathes that Balearic feel, a musical movement from Ibiza in the 80s him and the other members are still obsessed with. It’s not a dance album, obviously, but you can sense that vibe in the grooving Mother Silver Lake and the title-track Universal Want which comes with a surprising yet somehow consequent house music outro. While they are not actively thinking about reactivating their Sub Sub moniker they love to play around with these sounds again, now more than ever. On The Universal Want the band comes clean with its own past, attitude and understanding as artists. “I learned to walk away from the negative things,” Jez tells me. “It’s just not worth it.” One aspect of this comeback album was to accept that if something’s not meant to happen there’s no need to force it. “‘The art of saying no’ is a powerful one,” he adds. “We knew we were on the right path because our attitude felt right. We wouldn’t release anything we don’t like.”
And obviously, that new attitude also comes with accepting the fact that relevance is not a driving force anymore for the band. Well, there’s nothing cool about an all-male guitar band in their fifties anyway in the year 2020 and Jez is well aware about that but he confirms to me that he and his bandmates don’t really care about that anyway. “The question of relevance helped us to take the pressure out of it. We were like ‘Well, we’re just doing this for ourselves’ which is a lie, obviously.” He laughs before adding “In the eyes of a twenty year old you’re not cool if you’re over thirty-five, no matter what music you make. That’s just the natural cycle of it.” For me in my mid-thirties Doves are as relevant as they’ve ever been. And The Universal Want is more than a fan-pleasing nostalgia trip, it’s a vital start of a new chapter of a band that decided to play this game by their own rules now. “All you can do is trying the best you can and be honest about yourself and your work,” Jez sums it up, kindly inviting a new generation to discover the sound of Doves via the possibilities of streaming. The future is open for Doves as it is for many of us right now. Obviously, their first UK arena tour is booked for next spring and they want to play other places as well although it’s really impossible to plan that at the moment. “We’re desperate to go on tour, we started rehearsing already,” he says. And if that doesn’t happen they might continue to record new music as well. “Doves are on a roll” he confirms and there are no signs of another hiatus yet.
“You turn around and life’s passed you by” is one of the many memorable lines in the band’s iconic 2002 anthem There Goes The Fear and yeah, in the end time really flew by in these past ten years. And although I personally could have lived without the absence it did make the hearts of the band grow fonder, it made them stronger, calmer and more confident, resulting in some of their finest work so far. The Universal Want is a testament of positive and warm determination, a well-crafted peace of musicality and an antidote to that weird desire for impending doom. And it’s also a record that celebrates quality over quantity and speed. In a world where the CEO Spotify demands an increased quantification of art (and therefore also a decline of quality) we need bands that head for a different way. Doves might be old-fashioned but if this year taught us one thing than it might not be the worst to look for alternatives to our rushed modern understanding of life. Any maybe this record and this band are a kind invitation to start the search for your own personal want.
The Universal Want is out on September 11 via EMI.