The Universal Want
“Hello old friend, it’s been a while…”
Some bands, like families, don’t have ‘thunderclap’ events that unexpectedly define a moment or cause a domino cascade that shapes their lives every day thereafter. In the absence of lightning there’s nurture and in the absence of hard rain, there’s gentle persuasion. Some bands, like families, make considered moves together in steps of months and years, rather than rushing from every second into frantic minutes. Doves, it seems, is one of those bands. One of those families.
When Jimi Goodwin (vocals, guitars, bass, occasional drums), Andy Williams (drums) and Jez Williams (lead guitar, vocals, keys and programming) returned to a major stage for the first time in ten years at the Royal Albert Hall for Teenage Cancer Trust in March 2019, a sense of joyous disbelief developed between them. People still cared so much, including themselves. Such a surge of recognition that it all felt ‘right’ again wasn’t entirely new. Unknown to the audience that moved in rapt joy before them, Doves had begun their second chapter in a secluded corner of England’s Peak District two years earlier. In 2017, the three lifelong friends and musical collaborators of 30 years had come together without a plan or expectation, to try something new. It accidentally became their first writing session since the recording of the 2009 hit album, Kingdom Of Rust.
“Jez and I went up to the Peak District to work on some ideas,” recalls Andy. “The place we rented wasn’t that far away from where Jimi lives, so we just got in touch and asked him whether he fancied coming up. Just to hang out really. We played the idea for what became ‘Mother Silverlake’ and ended up just jamming it out together. It was really good fun. It just felt great.”
The track in question, Mother Silverlake, a percussive stroll in and out of Afrobeat inspirations, would remain a happy secret for some time to come. New ideas bloomed and archived loose threads they’d long regarded as unfinished business fell into satisfying formation. Broken Eyes, the second song that the band says came easily, had been a nagging idea they just couldn’t ‘crack’ last time around. Now, it flowed and found shape. What had changed? “Enthusiasm. There was a buzz,” judges Andy. “Perspective,” adds Jez, with Jimi left to offer “There was a willingness. We were all rooting for it. We fell back into it nicely together.”
Peals of unreserved acclaim followed their Royal Albert Hall show, kind words that blew warmth into the sails ahead of a busy summer of headline outdoor shows and major festival appearances. Their set lists contained crowd-pleasers from their four previous albums, covering Lost Souls (2000), The Last Broadcast (2002), Some Cities (2005) and the aforementioned Kingdom of Rust. The sun shone for their cherished hymns of northern noir, The Cedar Room and Caught By The River, while summer rain frequently failed to dampen breakouts of mass celebration for Pounding, There Goes The Fear and Black and White Town.
Off stage they continued to convene to carefully construct the 10 tracks that have now become The Universal Want, Doves’ fifth studio album and first new music in eleven years. Aside from the long-running #reformdoves Twitter campaign, the side-lines had been cleared of voices pushing Doves in any particular direction. Under no pressure, they had carefully put 46 minutes and 15 seconds of self-produced new music in place between their base in the Cheshire countryside, Vada Studios in the Cotswolds and Eve Studios on the edge of Greater Manchester. “It’s definitely got the stamp of ‘the time’ all over it,” says Jez, when asked to set expectations for what lies ahead. “Everything on the album is an echo. It’s an echo of what we were going through at the time. Getting back together, the Royal Albert Hall and everything else, but a mandate or a plan never did work for us. We don’t decide what it’s going to be about.”
As if stood on the pavement outside a church during a service, excluded from the gaze of God and the invitation of salvation, an introduction of dampened organ swirls into the path of album opener, Carousels. A dare is set for the listener; to assume what’s coming next having been accustomed to such indeterminable atmospherics pouring from previous Doves recordings. Yet Carousels’ forfeited guitars, replaced by complex, looped drum patterns, twisted, re-worked or replaced vocals and grizzling synthesized sounds deals a blow to preconceptions. On hearing the opening track for the first time, Jimi says: “I was blown away, as usual. It’s got a bad-ass breakbeat. Nice bite, boys!”
Recalling the thrill of the funfair, Carousels, as Andy puts it: “Is a reminiscence of the times that we’d go to places like North Wales on holiday as kids, where you had your first experience of sound systems and music being played really loud.” Maintaining a coastal theme, yet arriving almost 1,500km to the south of Rhyl or Llandudno, the components of the final track were assembled in Porto, Portugal. The city provides a regular retreat for Jez, retreating to work on new music, while putting the Manchester he knows and loves to the back of his mind.
Despite being the revered front man of a band that has twice been Mercury-nominated (for Lost Souls and The Last Broadcast), Goodwin remains endearingly cautious about revealing his own ideas. His profound respect for his band mates, with whom he originally formed dance band, Sub Sub in 1991, makes him a reluctant sharer. “Andy and Jez are my peers; I still feel nervous playing stuff to them.” Yet, with I Will Not Hide, the album’s second track, he supplied a soulful ready-made that was a few short steps from completion. “I pulled it out of the bag,” continues Jimi. “They arranged it for me and we recorded it over two afternoons in my front room in summer 2017.”
A four-chord progression that warrants an over-the-shoulder glance to classic Doves tracks like Catch The Sun, with disembodied voices cameoing alongside burbling electrified keys and perfectly-judged guitar breaks, the lyrics appear to denote a struggle in which the protagonist declines to blink first in the face of an unnamed opponent. With Broken Eyes that follows, The Universal Want climbs to its feet in delicately introspective mood. “There have been a lot of casualties in my past and I think some of these lyrics hint at that,” says Jimi. “We shouldn’t be afraid to reference the damage that life can do.”
Time has passed and people, quite publicly and privately, have come and gone. Lost in mind, body or both. Seeing years slowly tick by, the impetus for Doves to come back together came with consideration for each other’s wellbeing. It had to be fun again. “Now it’s OK to just say: ‘I am going to bail’ if you’re not feeling it,” says Jimi. “Whereas, in the past, I’d probably have been mortified to skip a session. We can look at each other now and say: ‘I don’t really want to do this today’ and we all know that it will be alright.” It helps that Doves don’t need to take to the live room for days on end to make a record, instead exploring the potential of the studio as another instrument. “We always tend to avoid just plugging in and playing,” says Jez. “We play with our hearts as a band for the feeling, but with our heads the rest of the time at the computer.”
Yearning euphoria, a tightrope between tears and laughter, desolation and hope, is an indefinable mood that Doves have long since mastered. For Tomorrow proves the point, a track that the band approached with their long-held ambition to write a soundtrack in mind, as well as aping the lush, wall-to-wall sounds of sixties psychedelic soul pouring from bands like Rotary Connection. Here, like the gut punch of Cathedrals Of The Mind that follows, Goodwin’s vocal brings with it the baggage that he says time has added to his journey. Vulnerable, sincere, yet as assured as any performance in the past, these songs are case studies in finding and leaving space for every line to hit as hard as it can. When it comes to what they’re about, it’s open to interpretation, like so much else. Andy says: “’Cathedrals Of The Mind’ was actually one of the first ones that caught Jimi’s ear for us to work on together. It’s about being haunted by someone. It’s usually the case that you write subconsciously with people in mind, without the song being written about them.”
Doves worked on songs, without working on an album. For a long time, they didn’t know they had one to give. It was Prisoners, a driving toe-tapper that leapt to life from a self-recorded loop Goodwin had developed to then become a loose Northern Soul homage, which Jez identifies as a turning point. With lyrics written separately, they all landed on the same page, coalescing in an indictment of desire and advising caution in what you wish for. “Before that point, I didn’t think we had a complete album,” recalls Jez. “It brought it together. We stopped thinking ‘don’t we need a weird one?’ or ‘don’t we need a dance one?’. It had come together.” A sense of unstoppable momentum continues through Cycle Of Hurt, a two-hander with Jez and Jimi sharing vocals, grooving onwards into the title track, Universal Want.
The past may be a foreign country, but Doves don’t mind visiting from time to time. Lyrically peppering modern life’s blind alleys of consumerism and misdirected aspiration with hostile fire once more (How long, til we see what we really want? / What we really need?), Universal Want features a remarkable handbrake turn. It’s piano-led stream of hymnal tranquillity breaks out into an unforeseen torrent just past the half way mark. Briefly a Sympathy For The Devil stomp, then a jaw-dropping house groove, it paints pictures of imagined nights in Detroit or Chicago and familiar dancefloors they knew closer to home. Jez says: “It’s a nod to our Hacienda days with the electronic bass at the end. Just thinking about walking in through those plastic flap doors into the club and the heat hitting you.”
Closing with Forest House, Doves are back in seclusion. Gently closing out with a sparse arrangement that first came to life during that first session in the Peak District, the story appears to come full circle. “It’s about being at one with nature, meeting with someone you love in the open and spending time with them,” says Andy. Perhaps, it’s suggested, this meeting of a loved one, away from the gaze of scrutiny, in a rural location is poignantly autobiographical. “Or it could be Doves as grown-ups with responsibilities, gazing wistfully at our salad days, not going home for whole summers of freedom and to hell with the consequences,” shoots Jimi, claiming the final word. Perhaps it’s best all round that the listener works it out.
Manchester, England. April 2020.