Understated Classics #7: 100 Broken Windows by Idlewild
Idewild are a solid band who have released four or five albums that I could consider for this series. I’m even in the sleeve credits of one: Post-Electric Blues, if you’re asking.
In the end I went for 100 Broken Windows because it means a lot to me. It has more of a place in my life than the others. Usually I find that this happens if I can remember where I bought an album. In this case I bought a copy of the cassette in Bath HMV at Easter 2000. I can remember the first time that I listened to it too, it was as I marched home to Oldfield Park down Bathwick hill from the university that same afternoon. It took exactly the two sides of the tape to get from one door to the other.
That period of time - from door to door - is about the perfect length for an album. Starting with Little Discourage, a wonderful little anthem about wanting the world and never getting it, the album tumbles and spits its way through side one. It pauses for breath with Let Me Sleep (Next To The Mirror) (“I’m sure that you’ll be fine / ten more years of this it will nearly be time”) but it has to after the tracks that precede it. You have I Don’t Have The Map, which re-tells the Robinson Crusoe tale while relocating it to the Shetlands. Roseability is an anthem to philosopher Gertrude Stein: “Gertrude Stein says that’s enough / I know that it’s not enough now”. Then there is a plea to see the world afresh in These Wooden Ideas: “You can’t keep waiting for progress / You can wait but I can’t accept at all”. It all rushes by in such a brash and energetic fashion that side one seems to end within a heartbeat.
I should also mention Idea Track from side one. It’s a freeform track, in keeping with its title, and it’s a song that taught me how to accept something unfinished-sounding. The “chorus”, such as it is, is wonderfully crunchy and shouty, the sort of thing that Roddy had to give up on as time went on and wore out his voice. 100 Broken Windows is the last of the Idlewild albums to feature shouty vocals. Many fans lament this but, the disastrous Warnings/Promises aside, all their albums have been good - whether they are shouty or not. Oh and the coda of Idea Track foreshadows some of the sounds that would come later.
Side two launches with Listen to what you’ve got (“What’s in these bad dreams / you might as well be talking backwards”) and then explodes straight into Actually its darkness before you notice the blisters. Actually its darkness is a perfect two minute pop song, albeit slightly more pyromaniac than you might be used to. It makes me incredibly happy, especially the first delivery of the line: “You’re scared to say I’m sorry I missed you” that then gets the rejoinder “why can’t you be more cynical?”.
The next two songs Rusty and Mistake Pageant are also great, a pair that would have been singles on any other album not already stuffed to the gills with hooks. The former is an out-an-out rocker with more shouting, the lyrics deriding someone who hides in a croft in search of authenticity. The latter is beautiful little song about bad parties and the social awkwardness that goes with them. I think this was the song I most related to as an undergraduate: “I know what it feels to have bad luck”. It has wonderful R.E.M.-style harmonies, which sets it apart nicely from the rest of the songs on the album.
The penultimate song The Quiet Crown is one of my all-time favourite songs. On my MSc at York, I played this song at full volume on my walkman immediately before every exam for luck. A few years later, I would put the lyrics on my bedroom door. I am not sure if the lyrics were a message for me or someone else (that’s all I am prepared to say). It’s an anthem and it has the lines “Everything’s gone wrong”, “Everything’s broken now” and “Everything’s gone running without a sound” all delivered with the sense that the world is collapsing but somehow still fine. I think that’s what makes it suitable for exam tension and broken hearts in equal measure.
The album closes with the spare and strident The Bronze Medal, a song I’ve never quite figured out. The chorus begins “Nothing but your eyes looking down on the third place” and there is a sense of impossible sadness running throughout. I guess to be third place in a relationship is to be the wrong side of a love triangle, but then there is all that stuff about throwing the radio on to the fire as well. It was probably because the album closes in such a spooky way just as I reached home that made it such a rewarding accompaniment to my walk.
I love this album, listening to it again has reminded me of people, places, and times that are simultaneously gone yet also preserved forever inside me. I could only ever regard it as a complete and utter classic.