Throughout the ‘00s, Doves were responsible for some of indie-rock’s most exquisite music. The trio from Manchester, England released four records between 2000-2009, each a perfectly-balanced ecosystem of euphoric anthems, haunting balladry and dreamy atmospherics. While never rising above the level of cult concern in America, in their home country, Doves ticked all the boxes for a top-tier rock band: they played arenas, scored No. 1 albums and had enough big sing-along festival favorites in their live set that finding a good time to go to the bar was impossible.
Despite that success, all was not well in Doves’ world by 2010. There was no rot, just a feeling for Jimi Goodwin (bass and vocals) and twin brothers Jez Williams (guitar and vocals) and Andy Williams (drums and… you get it) that they had run out of road. By that point, including their pre-Doves dance group Sub Sub, with 20 years under the belt, they needed a break and a hiatus was announced. The world spun on, but the minimalism that has become so prevalent in their absence left a gap for a band of their talents, where kitchen-sink instrumentation is crafted into sumptuous, intricately-layered works of art. You need a map and two weeks off work to dig to the bottom of a Doves song.
“The Universal Want,” their fifth album, arrives 11 years since their last and follows 2019’s triumphant reunion shows. In an interview to mark their return, Andy Williams declared that the band had “unresolved business, there’s so much music in us.” But this is not a record fired up with a must-make-up-for-lost-time urgency. As if to sum that up, glorious opener “Carousel” casually spends its first 60 seconds stretching its legs over a dreamy soundscape, telling you to wait in the car, it’ll be out in just a minute. Then the compressed groove of a Tony Allen drum sample kicks in, accompanied by blossoming synths and Goodwin’s soulful burr … and there they are, their decade-long disappearance melting into the footnotes. There is none of the chasing of their own tail that you sometimes find with reformed bands, desperate to prove the magic is still there, just an ease of musical expression and songs radiating with warmth.
Underneath even the breeziest of Doves songs, though, there has always been an aching yearning, and so it goes here. “For Tomorrow” begins as a jaunty bluesy jam until its gaze is directed inward by Goodwin’s reflective vocal and the subtle menace of strings that sound like they’re being played in a cellar two miles away. “I Will Not Hide” is a stark contemplation buried in shimmying cosmic folk. And it would seem rude listening in on the confessional “Cycle Of Hurt” if it didn’t sound like such a huge, hug-your-mate guitar anthem. At other points, the beauty is in the restraint, like when you expect “Cathedrals Of The Mind” to launch into a mammoth, lighter-waving chorus but instead it left-turns into a hazy sax solo. “Prisoners,” meanwhile, is an examination of depression… but an examination of depression set to an upbeat Motown-ish thump, the sort of song you’d put on at a party to start a conga.
Throughout the record, there are occasional signposts to other artists that Doves sound a bit like — Radiohead, Talk Talk, Brian Eno, Spiritualized — but mostly they sound like themselves. It’s hard to think of another band that could so excellently execute the inside-out that the title track performs, morphing from a mournful piano hymnal into a Balearic banger. You thought you were going to church but Doves brought their disco lights.
It ends too soon, as all great records should, and while “The Universal Want’s” themes of middle-aged reflection and regret would be a heavy load in some hands, Doves take on life’s big topics with a lightness of touch. If you have to hear the bad news, you want this band to deliver it. “The Universal Want” is a seamless addition to their near-perfect back catalogue, a record that is ecstatic and sad and up and down and guarded and open all at the same time.
“The Universal Want”
Virgin EMI Records