Everything The Universal Want—Doves’ first album in 10 years—is about is neatly surmised halfway through when Jimi Goodwin sings “I hear voices lost in time”. There are many lost voices on this album: the distorted snatches of dialogue that weave in and out of the mix as if they are half-remembered; the characters who obsess about the past and the present without living in the now; the band itself reforming and trying to push their blend of anthemic indie and Northern Soul into pastures new. The album plays like a supremely well-crafted mixtape, the band using the crate-digging skills they honed in Sub Sub to pay homage to the multicultural sound of their hometown Manchester.
“Is this my time?” asks Jimi on “Carousel”, a whirring behemoth of a track where the mix blows out each instrument to the edge of your speakers. “I’m going to take you down”, Jimi promises, before the giddy rush of the chorus, the thrill and fear of the new washing over the listener.
It’s an overwhelming—but welcome—assault on the senses: a sample of the late Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen’s hissing cymbals rattles underneath a mix of calypso and droning synths.
The driving folk of “I Will Not Hide” makes the end of relationship sound as thrilling as a first love’s kiss: the acoustic melody ringing out boldly like bells in a church tower as a lover finally finds the courage to speak the truth to their partner: “will you forgive me for questioning your asking price?”
The windswept “Broken Eyes” is a bombastic piece of classic Indie that recalls the Manics at their sweetest; the hatred of the previous track becomes frank candour —“I can’t love you if you don’t feel satisfied”.
“For Tomorrow” has all the drama of a Mike Leigh film. An unreliable husband grovelling for his wife to give him another chance, using the royal “we” as psychological manipulation: “from tomorrow, we will live again…no sorrow you will love again”. His philandering is implied through the funk and jazz breaks that punctuate the track. Midway through the song it very suddenly cuts away to a long droning note, a heartbeat kick drum and a low guitar humming like a ventilator, implying a near life-ending event may have triggered this husband’s epiphany.
“Cathedral of the Mind” is an eerie piece of ghostly dub: drums creak, piano notes echo, simmering synths rise to the boil then hiss away, and a twinkling flamenco guitar wafts through the air like cigarette smoke. Jimi casts himself as a Scrooge-like figure, hearing footsteps in empty hallways whilst his world is getting smaller and yet feels wistful at his loss rather than melancholic; “cathedrals of your mind, you’re never lost in mine”.
After such subtle tweaks to the formula, “Prisoners” is a welcome return to the classic Doves sound of old: the relentless bass and drums drive the track forward. A stuttering guitar solo sends the track into the stratosphere.
The psychedelic vortex, robotic voice and baroque strings of “Cycle of Hurt” recall the genre-bending of current Indie titans King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, both in sound and spirit. Rarely have Doves been this carefree wigging out and it’s a welcome change of pace.
Jez and Andy share vocal duties on “Mother Silverlake”; Jez’s highly-strung reedy voice provides an exciting counterpoint to the loose funk underneath it, while Andy holds back on his smooth baritone until the chilled groove locks in. By the time they threaten that “no one sitting here will be saved”, the groove has already got you.
Sadly, after such bold songwriting, the album ends on a whimper. The first half of the title track – the reverbed piano, the woo’s, the plaintive lyrics, Andy singing in a higher register—sounds uncannily like Coldplay on a preachy day, while the second half warps into a heavy brass throb, which unlike the transitions everywhere else, seems heavy-handed and almost defensive. The track also lacks the mini kitchen-sink drama of the rest of the album, its message about our insatiable desire to own new things as subtle as a punch to the face. There are plenty of ideas here but it doesn’t gel.
Andy stays in the same vocal high register for the pastoral dub of “Forest House” which thankfully returns to small lyrical details of earlier tracks rather than broad generalisations. Had it been somewhere else in the tracklisting it would have had more power, but after the title track, it seems too thin to make much of an impression.
Thankfully, the first eight tracks more than make up for those tracks’ failings. At its best, The Universal Want finesses Doves sound in innovative ways. Their experimental blend of genres is more in spirit with modern bands like Tame Impala, King Gizzard and Khruangbin than the early 2000 balladeers they came up with. Rather than be lost in time, Doves are living for this moment.