“This is love,” Tracyanne Campbell sings early on Desire Lines, “It’s alright.” Like most of Campbell’s lyrics, that assessment is loaded with ambiguity. She could mean “alright” in the Lou Reed-ian sense, as an understated expression of complete contentment, or she could intend the word to be read with an implied “merely.” Given Campbell’s track record, the latter reading seems more apt. No contemporary lyricist has better documented the disappointment of being let down by romance than Campbell, who over her long tenure with the Scottish indie-pop band Camera Obscura has used her nakedly sweet voice to simultaneously swoon over and cut down countless inadequate lovers. Even after five albums, it’s still a marvel how a songwriter so prickly can consistently turn out music so gorgeous.
Campbell’s high standards don’t end with her romantic prospects; they extend to her creative output as well. Desire Lines arrives four years after 2009’s lavish My Maudlin Career, a delay explained in part by a fear of repeating herself. She hints at those exacting standards on “New Year’s Resolution,” where she marks the holiday with a self-lacerating pledge “to write something of value.” On that front she’s succeeded: Desire Lines is another superbly crafted album, well worth the wait. Her songs return to some familiar themes, but she hasn’t come close to exhausting her melancholic muse yet, and the band’s arrangements are, as always, filled with surprise. Recorded in Portland with Decemberists/My Morning Jacket producer Tucker Martine, Desire Lines tames the symphonic rush of My Maudlin Career for a quieter, more restrained orchestral trickle. Though strings still sumptuously drift in and out of these tracks, they’re now more apt to support a song than carry it. The result is the purest late-night album that Camera Obscura has recorded yet—it’s not for nothing that Neko Case, the queen of late-night albums, lends her voice to the dreamy “Fifth in Line to the Throne” (the record’s second-best ballad, behind the utterly stunning tear-jerker “Cri Du Coeur.”) Campbell may someday conquer her self doubts, but until then, her restlessness is paying dividends.