‘We want to make people feel like anything is possible whilst listening to this record’ is a bold statement for anyone to make, but there’s no band better equipped to ensure this comes true than The Xcerts. 2014’s ‘There is Only You’ saw the trio cement their position as one of the UK’s best bands and their reputation and popularity continued to soar as more people found the album and connected with it – especially in the live setting. When ‘Feels Like Falling in Love’, the lead single from ‘Hold On to Your Heart’, was released to huge acclaim last July, the entire big tent at 2000 Trees was bouncing and singing along to it just a week later. It hinted at great things to come…
Following the euphoria of the closing title track of the last album, the opener to ‘Hold on to Your Heart’ finds Murray Macleod pondering the other side of the coin. An examination of the bleak place you find yourself in when someone you saw your future with cuts it off, the gentle piano-led ballad has Murray talking about how his scars will remain and contains both a callback to ‘In the Cold Wind We Smile’ favourite ‘Crisis in the Slow Lane’ (‘You found love and I found loss, that’s just the way it goes’) and a forthright sincerity that Craig Finn of The Hold Steady would be proud of: ‘Ain’t life beautiful? Wasted dreams are scattered out in the street while the boys and girls get drunk. Yo, Freddie, it’s 2am and I’m surrounded by love but all I see is dark’. Although the subject matter is downbeat, there’s a glimmer of hope shining through in the build-up of the music and it perfectly sets up the next run of three songs…
If any band manages to match a run of ‘Daydream’, ‘Feels Like Falling in Love’ and ‘First Kiss Feeling’ this year, they will deserve all the high-fives imaginable. You’ll have had the first two of these on repeat for almost half a year and if you went to a show on the autumn tour, you may well have found yourself humming THAT melody to ‘First Kiss Feeling’ over and over again in the months since. ‘Daydream’ is a Tom Petty-esque burst of Americana punk rock that finds Murray contrasting feelings of emptiness with thoughts of reconciliation: ‘Everything went black, there was no coming back for me’: ‘It was a daydream in my head’. Much like ‘Shaking in the Water’, ‘Feels Like Falling in Love’ loses none of its vigour even on countless relistens. The band said they want this record to sound something akin to a John Hughes soundtrack with a modern twist and nowhere is this more prominent than on this tantalising combination of early Killers and Simple Minds. It’s a bombastically proud pop song that has Murray admitting his faults: ‘I keep saying your name under my breath, I keep making the same mistake over and over again, I keep searching for that first kiss feeling.’ There are huge hooks, delicious synths and a drum-led breakdown that will work perfectly on the bigger stages the band are set to grace this summer and beyond.
There’s a welcome burst of in-your-face saxophone on ‘Drive Me Wild’. Played by Will from Black Peaks, it may take you back a little on first listen but if you embrace the fact that this is The Xcerts at their most Springsteen (and if you’re not excited by that prospect, this isn’t the album for you…) then you’ll soon fall for this song. See it as a little tribute to the Big Man Clarence Clemons. Murray sings about how he wants to be free before then backtracking and remembering something more sentimental and nostalgic: ‘I remember days in bed. You drive me wild’. As well as the anthemic and melodic moments and lyrics about feelings and love, there are many observations on life and death throughout the album. With its defiant title, ‘We are Gonna Live’ is 3 and a half minutes of power-pop that will make you want to go out and conquer the world. In fact, we’d love to see a freeze-frame of a crowd after it’s played live; we’re pretty sure everyone would be clenching their fists in passion. A cousin of ‘There is Only You’s ‘Live Like This’, it has Murray asking you to pull him in close and to not let go and then yelling the title with an enthusiasm you’d be foolish to ignore.
With its samples and pre-programmed drumbeats, the penultimate ‘Show Me Beautiful’ has already established itself as a live favourite and is quietly experimental. Murray laments how a ‘modern-day love affair made me question it all’ before talking about the effect grief and hurt can have on your mental health: ‘We are scared to dream and we are scared to die’. Murray becomes more defiant as he looks for the good in life during these moments and you can’t help but want to give him a huge hug when he states his intentions for a brighter future: ‘We will find ourselves and we will make things right. We will dream so wild and we will live in light’.
The closing ‘Cry’ is an open and delicately poised apology to the people Murray has hurt and an exorcism of his personal demons. It’s an admission he’s learned from past mistakes and is ready to move on. It also includes another throwback to the first Xcerts album (‘There’s a cold wind blowing through my heart’) that gives some closure. Owing a debt to both great American songwriters like Bruce Hornsby and contemporary favourites including Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams, while adding the openness of the likes of The Hotelier, Murray explains how: ‘We need death to truly feel alive’ and how the events he has experienced over the past few years have been ‘beautiful and terrifying. Feeling loved when you are dying. We’re too young to feel this numb’. A more subtle saxophone arrangement adds extra emotional impetus as Murray sings about ‘finding hope in the dark we hide in’. It’s a powerful metaphor that sums up the ethos of this record.
It’s an album that’s been designed to be played loud and proud and to help you through tough times – it’s one that reminds you there’s always hope to be found, even in the darkest of days.