Mixed emotions

The beautiful mood swings of Camera Obscura
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  June 18, 2009


VIDEO: Camera Obscura, "French Navy"

When at the end of the title track of her band's new My Maudlin Career (4AD) Camera Obscura vocalist/songwriter Tracyanne Campbell coos "I don't want to be sad again" over a bed of ethereally jaunty chamber pop, you'd be wise to take that with a grain of salt. A quick perusal of the Scottish outfit's œuvre reveals that sorrow and heartbreak aren't something Ms. Campbell shies away from. Since their founding in Glasgow 13 years ago, Camera Obscura have cranked out an impressive collection of stately pop that manages to balance between upbeat soul and navel-gazing despair — often within the same tune. My Maudlin Career is their most accomplished moment yet, its lush orchestration and austere arrangements combining with the raw nerves of the songs to create a sublime atmosphere of regal heartbreak.

"I'm actually not miserable," Campbell tells me over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles. (They'll be at the Somerville Theatre next Thursday.) "I mean, sometimes I am, but all people are — I guess I just happen to write songs when I am, sometimes. But at the end of the day, they're just songs, they aren't diary entries, and they're not — well, they're fairly confessional, I guess, but they aren't truly confessional."

Even in conversation, it's easy to sense the tension between confidence and self-consciousness that seeps into Campbell's music and lyrics. "People tend to pick up on that tension in the music, wondering if we mean to do it. And we don't mean to do it, it's just what happens. It's a case of chalk and cheese or something."

Campbell's lyrics also walk the fine line between sarcasm and sincerity; it's often hard to tell when she's serious. For someone whose band named their breakthrough 2003 album Underachievers Please Try Harder (Merge), she tends to belittle her own accomplishments. "I think we're still at the stage where we're trying to prove to ourselves that we can get a wee bit more sophisticated with our arrangements and whatnot. But at the same time, we just kind of do what we do. And as far as my songwriting, I don't plan what I'm going to write about — I'm too lazy for that."

It would be a challenge to plan out songwriting of the candid kind that Campbell specializes in — sort of like trying to find the most convenient time to be heartbroken. The more you listen to her vulnerable (yet strident) lilt, the more you wonder whether her despair is real or a crafted façade. "I'm not pretending to — well, I don't write lyrics in the hopes that I'm going to create some persona for myself. It is real, but only to an extent."

In other words, her seeming masochistic depression is merely an acknowledgment that everyone is subject to his or her own emotional roller-coaster. "I've always been a sort of, fairly, uh, shy person — well, maybe not shy, but self-conscious. Because, you know, you don't wake up every day and see the world the same every time. I definitely see the world differently from day to day. I'm quite moody."

CAMERA OBSCURA + ANNI ROSSI | Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville | June 25 | 7:30 pm | $19.50 | www.somervilletheatreonline.com

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