[Update: Please see also my subsequent interview with Paul Savage of The Delgados.]
The word underrated, particularly with regard to music, is so overdetermined as to be almost meaningless. The crucial question to ask is: underrated by whom? Slint, for example, is actually famous for being both massively influential and so chronically underrated: they are beloved by critics and devotees but remain unheard-of otherwise. On the other hand, there are critically underrated bands–like The Fall–which nevertheless enjoy a fanatically devoted cult following.
And then there are the truly, tragically underrated artists, a category whose parameters we might define as the bands possessing the highest ratio of musical greatness to popular acclaim. Every hardcore music fan will eventually happen across at least one such forgotten band, proclaim their awesomeness far and wide, and then wonder why critics and casual listeners alike seem to have completely ignored them. To such a listener, such a band will feel like theirs alone.
Mine was The Delgados.
I discovered them several years ago through the late lamented Stylus magazine, but unfortunately the band has stayed obscure since then. The Delgados didn’t make a single “best of the oughts” list or poll, their albums are mostly out of print, and their only brush with the mere possibility of a wider audience occurred when their music served as the opening theme to the anime Gunslinger Girl. But despite all that, The Delgados recorded some of the finest indie rock albums of the past twenty years.
The Delgados were a Scottish band; they founded the important record label Chemikal Underground and released five albums before breaking up in 2005 (because they were tired of being persistently underrated). I would like to discuss their three consecutive masterpieces–Peloton, The Great Eastern, and Hate–with the hope that by doing so, I can persuade more listeners to check out their truly wonderful work.
While they weren’t the most innovative band the world, The Delgados were exceptionally good at what they did: combining delicate, lavish orchestral pop with the loudness and force of maximalist rock. They actually merit the term baroque rock; their densely layered arrangements (of choirs, strings, horns, piano, glockenspiel, and flute) feel genuinely heavy. Most other baroque rock bands, by contrast, are better described as rococo, content only to hang pretty instrumental filigree on conventional songs.
The real beauty of The Delgados, though, is found in the band’s two vocalists. Alun Woodward’s dry Scottish lilt is a perfect foil to Emma Pollock’s reserved, sweet, smoky voice. When the two alternate lead vocals across a single album, the effect is riveting; when they duet, and the paired boy-girl vocals whirl and entwine around an single song, the result is pure magic.
Peloton was The Delgados’ stylistically varied second album. While it’s a little uneven, the individual highlights are many. “Everything Goes Around the Water” and “Pull the Wires From the Wall” demonstrate the band’s knack for drunken, swooning, lushly orchestrated melodies, which they carefully construct like fugues. “Clarinet” features one of my favorite moments in music, period: a brief, gorgeous section where nearly all the instruments drop away, leaving Woodward singing plaintively over a naked drumbeat and spare acoustic guitar line. And “The Weaker Argument Defeats the Stronger” finds The Delgados displaying an impressive command of soft-loud dynamics–they could rock out with the best. Elsewhere, the band explores stripped-down pop music, shoegaze, and even trip-hop.
The Delgados perfected their style on their third album, The Great Eastern. Produced by Dave Fridmann (best-known for producing all of The Flaming Lips’s albums), it sounded more huge and expansive than anything they had recorded to date; the guitars are frequently distorted, and Paul Savage’s excellent drumming is higher in the mix. Opening with the lovely, drifting sonic collage “The Past That Suits You Best,” The Great Eastern achieves its best effects through its combination of rousing, anthemic music with sour and sarcastic lyrics, perhaps most evident in the wittily bleak “American Trilogy.” Emma Pollock shines on the guitar pop of “Accused of Stealing” and “Reasons for Silence,” while the stunning “Thirteen Gliding Principles” features her and Woodward trading short vocal lines back and forth, eventually building to a massive, crashing climax. The epic tracks “No Danger” and “Aye Today” follow a similar pattern but augment it with the band’s characteristic orchestration, while the three closing tracks move further in the direction of chamber pop.
Dave Fridmann also produced Hate, The Delgados’ towering artistic achievement. The blackly comic title track “All You Need is Hate” serves as the mission statement for this bleak–yet often humorous–masterpiece: while the instrumentation is as grand and bombastic as ever, the lyrics dwell on depression and anxiety (“The Drowning Years”), nightmares (“Woke From Dreaming”), wasted, empty lives (“Coming in From the Cold”), lost childhoods (“Child Killers”), failed relationships (“Favours”), and exultant self-loathing (“If This Is a Plan”). On this release The Delgados further incorporate electronic textures, creepy kids’ choirs, and waves of ringing or crushing distorted guitar, but the star remains Emma Pollock’s voice. She lends a cool detachment to the chiming “Coming in From the Cold,” evokes romantic desperation on “Favours,” but most of all blows minds on “The Light Before We Land,” which is the best song the band ever recorded.
“The Light Before We Land” is the finest opening song to any album since My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” (on Loveless). In fact, the structural resemblance between these two classics is uncanny, as they both seesaw between dreamy melody and squalling noise. It begins with a sweep of strings and a swelling choir, but pounding drums soon enter, turning the soaring, gliding orchestra into a divebombing weapon. The song (in swinging waltz time) sways through alternating sections of weightless beauty, big sing-along choruses, and noisy, cathartic release, but Pollock anchors it all with her restrained yet passionate delivery. It’s a testament to the sheer quality of the rest of Hate that “The Light Before We Land” doesn’t overwhelm the many brilliant songs to come. (Also worth mentioning is the terrific b-side “Coalman,” which approaches the greatness of anything on the album proper.)
The Delgados’ fifth and final album, Universal Audio, is perhaps unsurprisingly a much lighter, happier affair than Hate, and it showcases the band’s talents at crafting simpler (and amazingly catchy) power-pop songs. The lyrics are as sharp as ever, but they exude a palpable sense of contentment, or at least acceptance. Universal Audio was a perfect end to a remarkably consistent career.
Since the band’s amicable split, they’ve continued to run their venerable record label while Paul Savage has become a respected record producer (both ventures focusing predominantly on Scottish bands). Emma Pollock is two albums into a successful and enjoyable solo career, and Alun Woodward has released a debut album with his new Lord Cut-Glass project. Meanwhile, the baroque style The Delgados pioneered sounds as fresh and exciting as it was a decade ago; one can only hope that it’s poised to make a comeback and influence a new generation of fantastic indie rock bands.
Reissues of The Delgados’ catalogue would be welcome, but in a way, I don’t really want the band to reunite. As much as I would love to see them live or hear new material, I’m mostly just grateful for all the superb music they gave us during their existence. Being underrated has its advantages–for fans, The Delgados are a band to treasure; for everyone else, they are a gem waiting to be discovered.