Through four albums, Camera Obscura has strived to capture the sound of Eisenhower’s postwar America, with an aesthetic loosely defined by earnest, reverb-soaked guitars, sweetly sung harmonies, and perhaps most important of all, that tragic catch in singer Traceyanne Campbell’s voice, dripping with the kind of despondent romanticism that permeated every awkward, anxiety-ridden high school dance you’ve ever attended. But beneath their ’50s-gazing melodies and all the self-deprecating quirks that consummate their cute-sad shtick, Camera Obscura is a band fueled primarily by hooks. Whether they’re attempting something darkly humorous (“I Need All the Friends I Can Get”) or something more candy-coated (“French Navy”), the group has always been at their best when things remain catchy.
But Desire Lines sees Camera Obscura straining harder for complexity; they maintain their famous sweetness while dialing back on some of the stronger melodies that defined Let’s Get Out of This Country and My Maudlin Career. Campbell’s picaresque narratives of teenage flings certainly benefit as a result of the newfound nuance, but what the band gains in maturity they lose in excitement: Desire Lines is both their most balanced and monotonous effort to date, with such little distinction between its dozen sleep tracks that it makes ideal background music. The band all too often appears to be hiding in the comfortable niche of their ambrosial indie pop, letting Desire Lines’s soft, slow-dance ballads drown in their own sugary but tasteless syrup.
Still, it’s hard to knock Camera Obscura for embracing the predictability of their own music when it’s delivered this sweetly. A few measures of “New Year’s Resolution” is all the band needs to display its mastery of bittersweet rockabilly, pairing Campbell’s sad-sap musings with a bubbly, snare-brushing tempo that immediately conjures up 4-H Clubs filled with low-top haircuts, poodle skirts, letterman jackets, and saddle shoes. I compared Camera Obscura to the Drums in my review of the former’s self-titled debut, and Desire Lines only reinforces the two bands’ linkages to each other: Both are completely sincere in their quest to recreate and reimagine the sound of America’s so-called Golden Age, though their approach is neither affectation nor quirk, but rather a lionizing tribute to a simpler age of rock n’ roll. Even when they stumble, there’s something charming about an indie band passing over all the usual ’80s-rooted influences for something much earlier, and despite the creeping threat of one-dimensionality, Camera Obscura is still some of the best evocateurs in that regard. By no means their best effort, Desire Lines is nevertheless a pleasurable listen.