Doves Return Enlightened on The Universal Want
The trio's new songs ponder the passage of time and the impermanence of everythingby Scott Russell
When post-Britpop stalwarts Doves released greatest-hits collection The Places Between: The Best Of Doves and announced their indefinite hiatus in 2010, frontman Jimi Goodwin told the Daily Record, “This is wiping the slate clean, we have nothing else in the vaults now. That is it. Whatever we do from now on will be a new start.” The band stepped off what he called “that whole album-tour-album-tour treadmill” and onto new creative paths, with Goodwin striking up a solo career, and twin brothers Andy and Jez Williams releasing an album as Black Rivers. Eventually, though, all roads led back to Doves: The trio, freed from the expectations with which they were saddled after multiple Mercury Music Prize nominations and U.K. chart-topping albums, reunited in secret for their first post-Kingdom of Rust writing session in 2017, and now they’ve returned with The Universal Want, a new start that would also make for a fitting ending. The album, one of Doves’ most confident and well-rounded releases to date, finds the trio older, wiser and bursting with a newfound vitality. These songs ponder the passage of time and the impermanence of everything—our endless desire to chase what we’ll never catch—from the peaceful remove of a band with nothing to prove.
Album-opening lead single “Carousels,” which Doves released in June before unveiling their new record in earnest, sets the tone for The Universal Want’s contemplative blend of slickly produced pop and invigorating dance music, the latter of which hearkens back to the band’s beginnings as Sub Sub. The song is characteristically atmospheric, with flickering harmonics, an ambient synth drone and Goodwin’s solemnly wistful vocals, while a rolling breakbeat (sampled from the late Tony Allen), filtered background vocals and staccato guitars lend it a sharp, avant-garde edge that feels fresh. Hook-forward yet intricate, “Carousels” hews close to its titular image, exploring the connection between place and memory: “I’m gonna take you down / Back to the old fairground / Open muddy fields spin round,” Goodwin sings, later rhapsodizing, “I’m falling in deep with the carousels in your eyes.” Doves consider life’s cycles throughout the album, finding peace in the acceptance of that inertia—we hang on however we can, and when we’re lucky, we manage to enjoy the ride.
The album’s other singles, “Cathedrals of the Mind” and “Prisoners,” strike a similar balance between serenity and exhilaration, moving between the two modes with the ease of a band made up of a trio of lifelong friends. The former track interweaves an ethereal synth loop with darting acoustic guitar riffage, exploring the innumerable spaces inside the human mind—the many settings of our memories. Goodwin sets a dreamlike scene, observing as the past and present blur together, all the while unable to escape the thought of someone absent: “In cathedrals of the mind / You’re never lost in mine / And I hear voices lost in time,” he sings, the instrumentation around him falling away, then slowly reassembling itself, contracting and expanding like a living thing.
“Prisoners”—the song that signaled Doves had a proper new album in them, and not just a smattering of songs—is less psychedelic and more upbeat, a big, galloping pop-rock track built on a propulsive low end, and featuring a galvanizing, call-and-response guitar solo that leads into a lush string interlude, backgrounded by bright acoustic chords. The anthemic choruses further reveal the paradoxical inner peace at the core of The Universal Want: “We’re just prisoners of these times / Although it won’t be for long,” sings Goodwin, as if acknowledging the darkness, but keeping his eye on the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a hopeful, reassuring sentiment that speaks to those who have lived through trouble, and will continue to.
Such resilience also brings growth. The spacy, Afrobeat-inspired “Mother Silver Lake” sounds unlike just about anything in Doves’ catalog. Front-loaded with a funky guitar/bass groove, the song eventually gives ground to jazzy piano and Oneohtrix Point Never-esque synth figures, vacillating between these opposing poles (and between vocalists, as well) just as its lyrics do “a summer breeze” and a winter rain. “For Tomorrow” stands out in similar fashion, evoking retro soul with hi-hat pitter-patter and tension-building strings, then warming up as guitars and bar-room keys make their way to the front. Goodwin reaches out to find common ground with someone from whom he’s grown apart (“Just try and talk to me / Are we really from different worlds?”), but the song just continues to intensify, swelling into a real barn-burner of a rocker. “Forest House” finally brings The Universal Want full-circle, with Doves retreating to the song’s eponymous seclusion via jangly acoustic chords and twinkling chimes, finding solace in a place of natural simplicity. “New morning’s come soon / Sunlight’s on your back / Shadows on dead leaves,” Goodwin sings, calm and composed—at peace.
If Doves’ past successes produced the pressure that resulted in their creative downturn, it’s reasonable to wonder how they’ll be affected by this return to the spotlight, aided as it was by secrecy’s freedom. But perhaps the answer is in the question. The Universal Want is about learning to live with desires we can never fully satisfy, accepting the highs and lows of a cyclical existence. Doves transcend time on The Universal Want, a graceful rebirth that not only justifies their reformation, but also serves as a reminder of the ability they had all along.
Scott Russell is Paste’s former news editor, his wife’s current husband and his couch’s eternal occupant. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.