• Marcas Mac an Tuairneir

Tide Lines / Eye of the Storm

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

Tide Lines Music

CD / Digital Download - available here

Tide Lines’ sophomore LP was released last year, after a three-year break beyond their début which has seen the band claim an undeniable position as one of Scotland’s leading live acts, with an intensely loyal fanbase of twenty-something Highlanders and urban Gaels. Released independently, the album even claimed a spot in the UK Top Three – no mean feat for any record released without a major label behind it.

Lead singer-songwriter Robert Robertson has become one of a handful of emergents putting a recognisable face to the contemporary nation in the Scottish media, with presenting stints on BBC Alba under his belt, as well. Robertson’s is an unmistakable talent, with his powerhouse voice and pronounced Highland accent. He has enviable technical prowess and is certainly one to watch. On the other hand, however, this leaves the rest of the band to blend into the background a little - particularly in the media coverage. This is disappointing, as there is plenty musicality to celebrate on ‘Eye of the Storm’.

The album picks up on EP release ‘Let’s Make Tonight’, released between albums, which saw the band develop their sound, experimenting with electronic elements, no doubt inspired by the likes of Ed Sheeran and James Arthur, south of the border, who, in similar guitar-man fashion, have blended this formula to great effect. This is not completely ground-breaking, however, after being heralded by Keane’s 2008 offering ‘Perfect Symmetry’ and others and developed further by the likes of Coldplay. In this way, if the samples and synths are an attempt to bring the Celtic Rock genre into the 2020s, they are over a decade late, stretching even the flexibility of Highland Time. Here, in the north, the blend of the cèilidh house and the dance-floor has won out for the likes of Peatbog Faeries and Afro Celt Sound System, since the turn of the millennium. Despite this, there is much to enjoy on the record, which is clearly aspirational in its attempts to foreground Highland identities within the commercial sphere. In this way, and considering the connection fans have clearly made to the act, they have found their niche.

Neil McCormack of The Telegraph noted, at the time of the album’s initial release, that the band’s aesthetic certainly had a dated feel and I would agree, despite understanding better its roots. With the cable knit and bomber jackets before a Highland Glen backdrop, there are certain nods to the Runrig releases of the nineteen-seventies and it is impossible to negate the influence of the original Gaelic rockers on what Tide Lines are turning out, for their own generation. Fashion choices aside, the album does hit some high notes. Robertson as principal songwriter is a master of melody and the arrangements and production frame his vocal well, often rising to the occasion, where is hefty vibrato might dominate.

Of course, as the twenty-first century rolls on, it’s nigh impossible for any Highland band – and there are plenty of them including Skerryvore, Mànran and Skippnnish, with whom Robertson and Ross Wilson played until recently – to release anything without the immediate comparisons to the anthemic classics of the MacDonald Brothers and Donnie Munro. Just as Gaelic poets must continue to write in the wake of Sorley MacLean, there is also scope to progress with the genre, in response the demand of the fans grown accustomed to the Runrig blueprint and needing something to fill the void, post-retirement. Matching the lyrical talents of Calum MacDonald, however, is going to challenge any young troubadour and all songwriters have their own trajectory – success and pitfalls.

Vocally, the comparisons between Munro and Robertson, too, are immediate – that Gaelic tenor, prone at times to over-singing with a through line that can be drawn right back to Calum Kennedy, who Robertson has, himself, revisited with his done-to-death - sorry - weel kent rendition of ‘Mo Mhàthair’. For me, it is this reaching into the past, or perhaps inability to let go of it, which harangues Robertson’s contribution on the album and which works against what the rest of the band clearly set their sights on, keen to press forward into the contemporary and craft what might not be unique, but is nonetheless a recognisable sound.

Musically, the nod to the synths of Sheeran and others sit well, for the most part, with the references to the piss-ups of millennial life coming through in ‘Shadow Into Light’. There are sparks of true lyrical success for Robertson in “Hold onto me ’til it’s over / Cause I can’t remember the last I was sober from the morning to the night,” and you can immediately place him alongside his Park Bar clique, living it large with a gerrul - as Robertson would have it - on each arm. The immediacy of the chorus is felled, however, by its set-up in the verse, where Robertson croons ‘Let me tell you my friends / one mortal to another / listen to the words I have for you.' This comes across more than a little like pontification from a premature Methuselah, setting us up for some life-changing revelation or other. Ultimately, nothing transpires apart from that we already know – in short, the reference to the deoch-a-thon is dropped, but its impact never explored and, as the song reaches its climax, I question if I truly care to find out, anyway.

‘Running at the Dark’ references a healthier form of escapism and we understand a little more of English graduate Robertson’s love of literature and Highland folklore, something which he is keen to hammer home, throughout. “I don’t believe that we’ll ever grow old,” he claims, but then who does in their early twenties? On other songs, Robertson does get closer to the showing instead of telling of “I’ve always loved romance and fantasy.” This is best demonstrated in the recurrent Highland motifs, which feature in every track, articulated most clearly, without being cluttered as elsewhere, in “Down the road, past the telephone line / this night was made for a moonlight serenade / the clear air starts to ease my mind / and I’m running alone, but unafraid.” Unfortunately, it’s still a little too twee to escape the shortbread box, which plagues his imagery. Is this the Highlands in 2021?

Of course, mining Scotland’s Anglo-Saxon folk canon is no new thing. Robertson is clearly a lover of the pastoral and the bothy ballad, but it is the aspiration to pastiche, rather than renew, the tradition, which sees him repeatedly miss the mark. The bulls-eye will not be achieved in the repeated use of archaisms and high-register vocabulary, which might work for some as a juxtaposition, but can only but fail here. The lyrics seem to aspire to reworking the traditional wheel, whilst the production suggests otherwise.

Robertson might find a better home for this penchant for loquacity with a contemporary folk set designed to flow along Hamish Henderson’s carrying stream, directly referencing his traditional inspirations, but on this album, it just does not sit with the sound. It’s these ejector-seat moments – as a Makar friend of mine describes them – which take me out of the song entirely, looking for anywhere but here.
“If you say you’ll be mine forever / then we’ll go down to yonder river / and when we’re there I will declare / We’ll last until the end” is one such example, from ‘Strangers’, where Robertson seems like he’s swallowed Keats’ Collected whole, or dreamed himself into a Walter Scott novel.

In other songs the writing is just lazy, exemplified by the wistful musings of ‘Midnight Sky’ - “Oh, tonight the starts are pretty / remind me of a night-time city sky” - which simply show a lack of original ideas and the desperation to fit the words - and seemingly any will do - into the rhyming scheme and so, it pains me to say that I’m in agreement that “There’s a Long Way to Go / Before [he’ll know’] the answers”. They are not to be found in a series of hackneyed oxymorons, which “everyone knows [...] are more or less the same” – that’s if they elicit a second thought. It's at times like this I feel like the words don't matter and are simply something to sing the melodies to.

If Robertson has read ‘so many stories now’ and knows ‘that’s not the way,’ then it would benefit him, and those working with him, to turn the page and better examine his own lived experience, which might yet make for some interesting takes and bring a little personality, as opposed to adopting the guise of an octogenarian shanachie. In this number, it’s the overblown production which frames the song as something that it just isn’t – the anthem of profundity which Robertson clearly wants to write, but never quite manages to.

The dual, lyrical nadir of the whole collection comes in ‘Wreck of a Ship’ and ’17 Again’, where, conversely, we find true musical highlights. In the former, the most left-field production and best cohesion of instrumentation and electronica. With jittering synths evoking the moon on the sea, it's the song itself that's eventually wrecked, though, on the rocks of the verses - “Well humankind, he draws a line / he draws a noose, parables and truths.” What are these parables and truths? Something so transcendent that Robertson can't articulate. Maybe, at least in '17 Again' we find a solid pop chorus and the most daring use of the nascent commercial sound. The production serves the melody and feels current, without coming across as desperate to do so, with its soaring brass.

As the collection progresses, it's in “In the days long ago, somewhere I don’t know / there was hardly a care in my head / so I went on my way, turning nights into days / wherever the winding road led” that I'm finally left wondering, quite honestly, what the hell Robertson is on about. Likewise with the cod-philosophy of “What profits a thing, for an idle king / who rules half the world on his own? / Great cities of men we can roam again / whilst he sits there alone on his throne." It's bombastic, yes, but without unpacking down the line, all I'm left with is style over substance.

Yet, I get it seeing Robertson founder again, as many ingenu wordsmiths do, in wanting to express concealed parts of the psyche but lacking the courage to spit it out or get it down in black and white. Instead, the rawness is masked by high falutin language which just wallows, sickly in both Robertson’s mouth and throughout the record.

It’s difficult to believe the post-teenage trials and tribulations Robertson fails to fully evoke. This is not to say that twenty-something singer-songwriters – most notably, in recent times, the late, great Amy Winehouse – can’t articulate the extremities of the human condition to devastating and ultimately authentic effect. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is full of them as, indeed, they always have, but Robertson is yet to be counted among them. The albeit heartfelt yearnings simply don’t ring true when articulated by the middle class Heilan’ Laddie from the smart part of Fort William with the blond quiff and beardless chin. It’s all a little too earnest and swathed in the treacle of cliché and impenetrable metaphor to grab you in the groin with any conviction.

As the band ready their third album, what’s needed is for the attempts at innovation embodied in the limited daring of the production to drag the lyric writing along. This might include evidence of the storms Robertson claims to have weathered and could come through, perhaps sonically, in a bit of grit and gravel in the vocal - something Robertson could learn from the likes of Adam Holmes. But, more importantly, in managing to dump the misplaced, mealy-mouthed grandiosity which pervades ‘Eye of the Storm’, Robertson might finally find the sweet spot to which all songwriters aspire - communicating honestly and openly, through his lyrics, which clearly aim to be confessional. If he takes this on board, album three could really give us some insight into the mystique of life on the road for the Gaelic pin-up.

Time will, undoubtedly, tell but if Robertson is to succeed in this, he would be better off embracing a model a touch older than those he is currently employing – namely, that of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Whilst the band make great strides with their sound and set out for a path untraveled by themselves, at least, unless Robertson’s songwriting is taken in hand, this may form a road-block. Every poet needs an editor and for Robertson, what’s required at this juncture in his creative development is someone willing to sit down with him face-to-face and tease out of him his ideas so as to help him frame them frankly. If he can embrace the challenge, he may produce a new oeuvre that will ultimately give his die-hard fanbase pause for thought, instead of heading off for a jaegerbomb, before he’s reached his final crescendo, knowing they'll hear more of the same when they return.

An Aghaidh na Stainge

Throughout lockdown and beyond, Robert has built on the viral success of his impromptu balcony duet, by developing his presence on social media, most notably through Tiktok.

Robert, to his credit, is doing a lot to bring the language to new media and engage with the young Gaelic-speakers who clearly adore and look up to him.

Whilst the band's offerings have been largely all-Robert with the band, not so much in evidence at all, it's nonetheless been great to see this platform being used for him to showcase his love of Gaelic song, which does make a brief appearance on 'Eye of the Storm' in the Murchadh MacPhàrlain classic, 'Cànan nan Gàidheal', which despite some problems with broad n-s and an unease with the 'thig còmhl' rium gu siar' of the chorus, will please his Gaelic-speaking fans.

Follow them - or Robert, for now - here.

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