Camera Obscura, “Look to the East, Look to the West”

The Glaswegian chamber-pop quartet’s comeback record finds the group nestling back into its comfort zone, soothing the soul like the band used to.

Camera Obscura, Look to the East, Look to the West

The Glaswegian chamber-pop quartet’s comeback record finds the group nestling back into its comfort zone, soothing the soul like the band used to.

Words: Kurt Orzeck

May 20, 2024

Camera Obscura
Look to the East, Look to the West

Long before a litany of bands came along sounding like Camera Obscura, there was, obviously, Camera Obscura. One of Glasgow’s greatest exports showed us a softer side of indie-pop throughout the aughts, much in the same way another group of Glaswegians, Mogwai, upended post-rock during that same era. Camera Obscura was a playful parade through a field of tall grass and bright-yellow daffodils that pleasantly cleansed the senses (so long as you didn’t have bad allergies). Now, after taking 11 years to hibernate, regain their focus, and find the way back to the center of the labyrinth that is life, the returning Scots caress us more softly than, sure, a box of Scotties tissues.

It’d be silly to suggest that Tracyanne Campbell invented whimsical, distortion-free pop music when she formed her band in 1996. Likewise, it’d be a fool’s errand to try and make the claim that no other band has sounded like Camera Obscura since their formation. Ironically, Campbell and company departed from Merge Records following 2006’s breakout Let’s Get Out of This Country LP, shortly before Wye Oak sprouted and—not long thereafter—signed to that same label. That similar-sounding band owes Camera Obscura more than just a “thank you”; Campbell’s group remained within a niche while Wye Oak achieved such a high level of commercial success in the early 2010s that The Walking Dead featured one of their songs.

Now, Camera Obscura have returned not to outdo Wye Oak or cash in on the nostalgia trend. Adorers of the quixotically sensual quintet can breathe a collective sigh of relief that, in re-emerging after a decade, their comeback record finds the group nestling back into its comfort zone in more ways than one: Not only does Look to the East, Look to the West soothe the soul like the band used to, but Camera Obscura are also back on the Merge roster, completing the circle circumscribing their illustrious career.

Campbell’s project emerged at a time when indie rock was synonymous with mid-career Sonic Youth and dominated by similar bands one-upping each other’s raucous abrasiveness with sheer volume as their weapon of choice. Camera Obscura offered an alternative to alternative rock: a deep cleanse of one’s inner self. Now, they’re here once again to provide peace during times of tumult. They’re the embodiment of the Tibetan singing bowl that begins and ends the enriching practice of contemplative prayer. While skeptics may view spiritual meditation as an exclusive Eastern phenomenon, Camera Obscura sees its value everywhere in the world—a quietly spoken yet irrefutably true assertion connoted by the title of their new album. “In a strange kind of way / Life, it goes on and on,” Campbell reflects on the title track. “I’ll bring champagne and clementines / Tell you everything’s alright / A dark time in history / But never a gloomy day / White with snow, sunshine / I’ll blow your blues away.”

If those illustrious, tearfully beautiful sentiments don’t resonate with you, maybe it’s time to re-examine your outlook on life. We’ve somehow survived these long decades, despite them dousing us with vitriol and pain, but we haven’t yet dealt with the baggage. We needed Camera Obscura to rise from the grave and gently guide us back to a place where we could see beauty from every vantage point. These reunited musicians aren’t zombies; they’re saviors.