Happy 20th Anniversary to Idlewild’s debut album Hope Is Important, originally released October 19, 1998.
Scottish indie punk band Idlewild will always have a very special place in my heart. They were the very first band I ever saw live. Way back in 1998 they were supporting Northern Irish punkers Ash in my hometown of Leicester, UK. I was seventeen and along with my friends we attended our first ever concert together at Leicester’s quite grandiose De Montfort Hall. It was a moment.
At the time, Idlewild were garnering rave reviews in the music press for their energetic live shows and immense praise for their debut mini-album Captain (1998), which had yet to fall on my ears. When Idlewild took to the stage, the sonic blast was exhilarating and in a way, through its sheer chaotic energy, kind of dampened the main event of seeing Ash’s performance.
Idlewild were formed in Edinburgh, Scotland by vocalist Roddy Woomble, drummer Colin Newton and Guitarist Rod Jones. Bassist Phil Scanlon joined a little later, but left in 1997 to concentrate on his studies. He was replaced by Bob Fairfoull and it was this quartet that became the most recognizable formation of Idlewild.
On that fateful night in Leicester, not a single lyric could be distinguished from the barrage of noise and bodies, and at the time it hardly mattered. Idlewild’s performance was more about excitement in seeing a real live band on stage, something I’d only read about in the music press and heard second-hand from older peers.
Not long after this performance, Idlewild’s Hope Is Important (1998) was unleashed. Compared to the scatterbrain punk of the live show, the record allowed for more restraint and its quite clever lyricism and musical intricacies to unfold.
Sure it launches with the snotty hurricane blast of "You've Lost Your Way,” a by-numbers punk start, but then we quickly move into the more melodic “A Film for the Future,” which was also the first single from the record and possibly the first song by Idlewild I had the pleasure to hear. “Paint Nothing” and “When I Argue I See Shapes” follow on and allow for spaces to appear in the record’s momentum.
“4 People Do Good” is a welcome two-minute blast, but the yearning gaps return in the most surprising and spacious song to appear on Hope Is Important, “I’m Happy to Be Here Tonight” a beautiful and harmonious acoustic ballad, which if released as a single at the time (or even today) would have surely propelled them into mainstream stardom in the realm of Travis before Travis embraced acoustic rock with their 1999 album The Man Who. Missed opportunity?
Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s better that “I’m Happy to Be Here Tonight” remained a solid album track, as it acts as a pointer towards the mature future sound that Idlewild embraced with more gusto on songs like “Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)” from 100 Broken Windows (2000), ”You Held the World in Your Arms” and “In Remote Part” from The Remote Part (2002), and “I Understand It” from Warnings/Promises (2005), and more obviously on Roddy Woomble’s Scottish folk influenced solo records. Still one can’t help but think that the song represents a much understated side to the band that was dying to break out and of course eventually would.
And let’s try and unpack those intricacies. For these are virtually unheard of on a scatty punk rock record and certainly did not appear in the live performances. One could certainly point to the harmonies used on “I’m Happy to Be Here Tonight,” but there are small moments strewn throughout that signal Idlewild as intelligent song craftsmen. Take for example the closing coder of “When I Argue I See Shapes.” Three harmonious variations of the song’s title overlap in a wonderful moment of synchronicity.
Lyrically speaking, the record never made much of a connection to me as a teen. My assumption was the lyrics were simplistic rants that were required to accompany the music. However, in listening to the record today, there are some interesting couplets that appear throughout that signal that Idlewild were always competent songwriters and would expand their lyrical vocabulary in the future. I’m thinking here of “Paint Nothing” as the prime example.
After “I’m Happy to Be Here Tonight” the album returns to its punker elements with “Everyone Says You’re So Fragile” and “I Am a Message,” two other solid singles that were taken from the record. We are then faced with the record’s only throwaway song "You Don't Have the Heart,” a kind of improvised punk jam that never really needed to happen, let alone be recorded and included within the record.
The closing trifecta of the record offers a few more clues towards how Idlewild would evolve in sound. “Close the Door” and “Safe and Sound” both seemed destined to be bigger sounding and share elements of the more anthem-laden songs from future records. Here it appears that these songs want to break out, but the punk context in which they find themselves won’t allow it.
The epic drone-fest “Low Light,” the longest track on the record at just over five minutes, ends the record in a barrage of squealing feedback and distortion more akin to the noise of their live shows.
What is most apparent in listening to Hope Is Important, way back in 1998 and even twenty years on, is that it was always intended as a launching point; a mixture of ideas and possible futures for the band. Included within we find songs that are mere kernels for Idlewild’s future recordings. It is the sound of a band still young enough to not know any better but who know at least that the future is rosy with possibilities. This is something today that most new band’s might not get a chance to experience. A stab in the dark at a record that might fail in places yet with the intention of building further upon it.
Thankfully they were a band who really did transcend their debut and widen their scope to evolve from their punk origins. In the past two decades, Idlewild have become one of the most expressive and engaging bands to emerge. Hope Is Important remains a vibrant and much required debut.