Camera Obscura Find a Way Forward on 'Look to the East, Look to the West'

BY Dylan BarnabePublished May 2, 2024


On Look to the East, Look to the West, Camera Obscura's first new material in over a decade, the Scottish quintet recapture the melodic magic of their earlier catalogue following the tragic passing of bandmate Carey Lander in 2015.  

Joining founding members Tracyanne Campbell, Kenny McKeeve, Gavin Dunbar and Lee Thomson is Glasgow vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Donna Maciocia on keys and vocals. Her presence weaves seamlessly into Camera Obscura's whimsical outfit, even becoming a regular co-writing partner alongside Campbell.  

In many ways, Look to the East, Look to the West feels like the opposite of a return from an extended hiatus. The band deliver their familiar cocktail of piano, synth, organ and drums across 11 tracks, with the introduction of steel guitar ("Big Love," "The Light Nights") that dials things into an occasional honky tonk reverie. Working again with producer Jari Haapalainen, Campbell and company plumb the familiar basins of love, longing and loss that have long inspired their music, but with a renewed, modern lens. While references to catching Pokémon, listening to Top 40 hits, texting phones left on silent, and doing party drugs feel slightly jarring for a Camera Obscura album, it also shows the band to have found new ways of expressing their milieu. The romance of French navy sailors and cathedral cities, whose lore is canonized in the band's discography, has evolved to reflect the realities of today. It signals a shift, perhaps imperceptible to some, that should be welcomed by fans and newcomers to their music alike.      

Camera Obscura have always excelled at marrying their retro, breezy style with a vulnerable underbelly, their toe-tapping bops belying deeper internal struggles. It's nice to hear that this tradition hasn't lapsed with the years; Lines like "Would you give up your love for me / If I ask you please / Would you give up your love for me / I am asking please" on "The Light Nights" and "Will it ever be enough / To live a whole life without love? / The kind you really need for your soul / For a chance to feel whole" on "Baby Hues (Hard Times)" register like a delayed reverb and linger long after. The band is as introspective as ever, posing unanswerable questions and divining the meaning of living life without regret, loving with your whole heart and navigating your dreams.

Lander's passing looms large on the album, and the penultimate track "Sugar Almond" is a nod to her absence and enduring legacy. The song's simple composition highlights Campbell's heartbreaking lyrics: "I liked who we were together / I'm not sure who I'll be apart / I will love you forever and ever." It's a haunting rumination on loss and a beautiful tribute to the indelible mark love leaves on another person. Listening to Look to the East, Look to the West feels at once redemptive and healing; Camera Obscura have found their way through the dark. As Campbell surmises on the final track: "In a strange kind of way / Life, it goes on and on."

(Merge Records)

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