Camera Obscura’s second LP (and first US release), Underachievers Please Try Harder, is an album best suited for the jilted and freshly brokenhearted. It’s a sweetly conflicted record that tries to resolve the dissonance between naïve, romantic fantasies and reality— like searching for the real person behind “a perfect smile.” But like love, the strongest theme on Underachievers can be fleeting.
Describing a lovesick character as feeling topsy-turvy is endemic of being infatuated—and, hardly unique in songwriting. But at times, Camera Obscura takes an original approach to the subject matter by slowly dispelling idealized notions of romance. Early in the album, loose references to fairy tale anecdotes materialize in lyrics like “I have a feeling that pigs might fly,” “wishful thinking’s going to make you mine” and “your face … it’s the fairest of all.” Later on, there’s resistance to personal regression. Despite Traceyanne Campbell’s fragile voice, “Teenager” stiffly counsels, “well you’re not a teenager, so don’t act like one.” Meanwhile, “Books Written for Girls” reveals a more mature analysis that debunks romantic fantasies altogether by asserting, “Now, I think separation is okay. You’re no star to guide me anyway.” The struggle to detach oneself from juvenile instincts is compelling and further made believable by the musical arrangements and styles.
“A Sister’s Social Agony” is framed within ’50s doo-wop akin to The Penguin’s “Earth Angel.” The Scottish band’s choice to model after this American genre is clever. In the ’40s, America’s MGM musicals and billboard songs illustrated a carefree, cheerful portrait of youth and romance. Yet, in a similar spirit of disillusionment, many hit songs from the ’50s were about being foolishly love struck and having your heart broken for the first time. Yet when the album isn’t emotionally struggling with the inner child, Underachievers loses its grip and will power.
But the album doesn’t fail as much as it shifts focus. For almost the first half of the album, Campbell sings from a woman’s point of view. By the fourth track, her voice is capable of unleashing buried feelings of rejection. “Suspended From Class” is so tender and honest, I half-expected (and wanted) the album to follow Campbell as if she was a character in a movie (playing victim can be strangely comforting). Given this expectation, the appearance of John Hendersen’s vocals in the second half and the expected giddiness in songs like “Knee Deep at the National Pop League,” “Lunar Sea” and “Before You Cry” startle the previous theme. Alas, the transportation back to teenage heartaches is also a trip back into the days of self-indulgence. I wanted more of what I could relate to.
Beyond the freckles of self-pity, Underachievers offers some pretty melodies but like an awkward adolescent seeking identity, there’s far more potential here than flawlessness—here, a listener’s fantasies for a perfect album are imposed. Indeed, the journey through disillusionment is compelling. However, the light pop-orchestral songs like “Number One Son” and several others come off as kissing sisters to a solid Belle and Sebastian tune (perhaps Stuart Murdoch’s involvement on their first album still influences the band today, like an ex-lover). Regardless of borrowed styles, none of the songs on the album truly stand out as a track worth falling in love with.