Camera Obscura's Misery Business

Scottish indie-pop guys and girls find happiness by not faking it

"I'm reading Richard Yates's Easter Parade," says Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell. How appropriate.

In case you missed it, a Yates renaissance, led by last year's Leo & Kate film adaptation of his caustic novel Revolutionary Road, is now in bloom. Too bad—and quite typical—that the man himself didn't live to see it. Anchored in his later years by a wheelchair, an oxygen tank, and steadfast frustration, the former Kennedy speechwriter and Yonkers native passed away in Alabama in 1992. And though acclaimed as "brilliantly dismal" and "remarkable and deeply troubling," no hardcover of the author's tales of sterile suburban solicitude sold more than 12,000 copies in his lifetime. In particular, 1976's overlooked Easter Parade, an account of two sisters and the downside of their supposed liberation, has been called "cruel and sweet, heartbreaking and brutal."

"I think that's why I like him so much—I get it," says Campbell, a songwriter who knows something of heartbreak herself. "It was depressing, but it was so true. Basically, it's saying that sometimes life can be absolutely fucking miserable, and that's just the way it is. And that's all right. That's the thing that I think I'm getting to grips with. It's fine to be unhappy. It's real. It's true, you know? All those people who are pretending they're happy all the time, I don't understand."

Their lack of joy is infectious.
Donald Milne
Their lack of joy is infectious.

Campbell and I are walking south of the East Village down Broadway. Our planned shopping date for vintage clothing (good luck finding a photo of her in anything else—or smiling, for that matter) has been called on account of hangover. Otherwise, surprisingly, she's fine. "I'm quite happy just now, which is quite alarming," Campbell says. "I'm sort of the most stable I've been in years."

This stability, however, no matter how temporary, is somewhat of an occupational hazard, given that her artistic specialty is ambrosial anthems of romantic regret. ("Disappointment," Campbell terms it. "I tend to see the negative in things.") Since the Glaswegian group first emerged at the dawn of the 21st century, their lead singer and sole songwriter has led her band through multiplying measures of melancholy. "This is the scary thing," she allows. "I realize that I can really only write when I'm really sad. And what's going to happen when I don't get sad? I feel like there's nothing else. I can wake up in the middle of the night sometimes with absolute terror that this could disappear and I would have to do something else."

And, she adds, "I can't do anything else."

Campbell and her band are in town to introduce their fourth album, My Maudlin Career, via two sold-out bi-borough shows. But it's their last effort, 2006's Let's Get Out of This Country, that makes this equivalent of long layover even possible. Powered by the musically jaunty yet thematically misfortunate single "Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken," the disc's increased sales, tour dates, and overall exposure not only provided a dash of daring, but finally granted a longtime group wish: a full and unconditional (at least for now) release from their day jobs, so as to concentrate on music full-time.

And Campbell, who once described playing live as "torturous," now confesses, "I've changed a lot from touring. Whether it's a good or a bad thing, getting up and doing that, playing shows, my attitude changed. I don't feel fragile. Making Let's Get Out of This Country was a big, massive thing for me. It was all about bravery and taking chances."

For its sequel, Camera Obscura returned to Sweden, once again recording with Country producer Jari Haapalainen and once again utilizing the brass and string arrangements of Peter Bjorn and John's Björn Yttling. The primary difference now is lyrical: "They're never not personal," Campbell says of her songs. "But it's true to say that absolutely every word counts on this record. Every single word."

Take "Honey in the Sun," My Maudlin Career's culminating track, which caused no small amount of in-studio discussion. "Jari's like, 'OK, so, Tracyanne thinks she's Bob Dylan in this song,' " she recalls. "Like that. That's what he said. He's like, 'So, this is interesting. You think you're Bob Dylan.' And I'm like, 'I don't think I'm Bob Dylan. I've got something to say.' And he was like, 'Maybe we could get rid of a couple of verses.' And I'm like, 'No, you can't do that. No. You can't take any of the words away. No way are you taking the words away.' He can tell me that we're singing in the wrong key. He can tell me that there's no need for an instrumental break. He can tell me that we must sing the chorus 10 times. But he would never change the words."

Of course, no listener will mistake Campbell's sharply Scottish alto for a Dylanesque rumble, but what "Honey" does do is smash through the upper limits of the traditional Camera sub-four-minute pop song. And what verses like "I've been spending half the year in a plane going up and down/You've been seeing other people from a nearby town/Been obsessing and getting depressed about us/Excess baggage and other stupid band stuff" concede is that Tracyanne Campbell is no longer content to coyly costume her own encounters.

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