Album Review: Camera Obscura - Desire Lines

by Mac Wilson

Camera Obscura - Desire Lines
Camera Obscura - Desire Lines (Courtesy the artist)

You've seen desire lines in everyday life, whether you know it or not. It's the phenomenon when traffic — usually pedestrian — diverges from the standard, set path (e.g. sidewalks) in favor of a path that is shorter, easier, more logical, or all three.

When enough people follow in this same path, it becomes an "official unofficial" route. Visit any college campus and you will see desire lines, charted wherever undergraduates clearly didn't feel like walking the extra 15 feet and opted to cut through the nearest grass median instead.

There's a track on Deerhunter's 2010 album Halcyon Digest called "Desire Lines," which demonstrates this effect musically when it abruptly shifts from a standard indie anthem to a single guitar riff, repeated ad nauseum for three minutes. The effect is hypnotic, spellbinding, and elevates the song from mere excellence into the pantheon of the best rock songs of the decade, and it all comes about in a fairly unconventional way. The repeated guitar pattern shows that while the song may not have gone where you expected it to go, it ultimately reveals something organic and natural, like an ancient migration pattern that predates human civilization.

In terms of form, Deerhunter fully encapsulated the concept of desire lines. When applied to human emotions, though, desire lines become something more unnerving. It's one thing to walk over terrain that you're not supposed to for convenience's sake. But can you imagine applying that in real world circumstances? If your career, or your significant other, are the sidewalk, and you see a "more convenient" pathway, is it ethical to tromp through, without regard to the consequences?

On the one hand, that's how things always should have been. Given enough repetition and time, anything could easily become your new pathway, and you will be left to wonder why you took such a needlessly circuitous route in the first place. And if other people have carved out that particular path in the past, is following still a transgressive act of defiance, or a legitimate avenue for future journeys?

I think Tracyanne Campbell thinks about these things. The protagonists of Camera Obscura songs are typically confused and insecure, wondering if they've chosen the right path in life, and always wondering if they could have gone another way. As in life, they seek validation for the choices they've made; as in life, such a concrete answer is rarely available. This contributes to a sense of melancholy that drifts into most of Camera Obscura's material. While this sadness hovers over their music, there is also a gentle tranquility, particularly in their newest album.

Camera Obscura have tried for many years to strike the right balance between quiet moodiness and bright bombast. They've released a handful of sunshiny singles (notably "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken" and "French Navy") that benefit from booming instrumentation and cacaphonous reverb, but it's also an effect I feel they've over-used, to their detriment (you can only listen to so much echoing treble before fatigue sets in).

On Desire Lines, they avoid any monotony with a well-produced, well-sequenced blend of overt poppiness and subtle heartstring-pullers. Lead single "Do It Again" is the most frenetic and urgent cut on the record, expressly propositioning a lover while slyly winking at the band's own history of like-minded tracks. The dynamic range of sounds and styles is a welcome change, as the band dips into folk (with "Desire Lines") and '50s torch songs ("Fifth in Line to the Throne"). There are even hints of '80s and '90s alternative touchstones such as R.E.M., the Smiths, and the Jesus and Mary Chain popping up in numbers like "Troublemaker" and "Break It to You Gently."

My biggest criticism of Camera Obscura to date has been the homogeneity of their sound, a trend which they seem to have successfully bucked with the new album. The band's path to this point has been a consistent one, but stepping off and forging a unique, new trail has proven to be a rewarding and exciting move, putting Desire Lines in serious contention for the best album of Camera Obscura's career.

Related Stories