Scottish Albums of the Decade #1: Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows

Feature by Darren Carle | 01 Dec 2009

When placing Idlewild’s sophomore album 100 Broken Windows into the context of Scottish albums of the decade, it becomes all too clear how much the musical landscape has changed since its release in May 2000. The Edinburgh quartet, now a quintet, have travelled from major label, to really major label, to being all too inevitably dropped, picked up by a struggling indie label, before self-releasing their latest album Post Electric Blues. As a sign of the times, Idlewild’s trajectory is almost too hackneyed to be believable.

However, perhaps the keyword here is ‘sophomore’. Now more than ever, a knock-out debut album is the expectation and anything less is almost career suicide. Had that been the case ten years ago, it’s debatable whether 100 Broken Windows would have been made at all. We may think of Idlewild as ‘indie-darlings’ these days, but back in 2000 ‘punk rock noiseniks’ was a more apt description. Debut album Hope Is Important was testament to this, a progression from their Captain EP for sure, but still satisfyingly loud and scrappy enough to hinder much extra exposure.

In that setting, and despite the learning curve, 100 Broken Windows is an astonishingly complete album, with huge leaps in musicianship, production and song-writing. It put Idlewild on the musical map and saw them shorn of the 'punk' straightjacket once and for all. Ahead of a homecoming Edinburgh gig, singer Roddy Woomble and guitarist Rod Jones were happy to indulge The Skinny and reminisce on their finest hour.

“I think that the leap from Hope Is Important to 100 Broken Windows has never been repeated,” begins Jones. “We were playing our instruments better, recording in a way that sounded so much better, figuring out how to use a studio. It’s probably a bigger leap forward than any of our records were ever going to be after that. It’s the sort of thing that often happens between a band’s first and second record I think.” However, Woomble is keen to highlight other factors in the album’s creation. “There are a lot of technical aspects as to why it’s better than our first,” he agrees, “but also there was a bit of spontaneity there that you can’t over-analyse. We were just excited to be in the studio and songs like Idea Track and the call and response bits from Roseability we just came up with as we were recording it.”

In fact most of Windows was written and recorded on the hoof, seeing that the band were on a 120-date tour of Hope Is Important at the time. “We didn’t have a lot of time to over-think things,” says Jones of the process. Woomble concurs, relishing the extra time the band have these days in finely honing an album. “But then again, a record like 100 Broken Windows was about not analysing things too much.”

However, with a loyal fan base, analysis is perhaps inevitable. Perhaps more than any of their albums, Windows seems imbued with its own sense of mystique. Roddy’s emergence as a more accomplished lyricist certainly helped with this. “I had no real confidence as a lyricist to begin with,” he claims. “Then around the time of 100 Broken Windows, I started becoming interested in using the microphone like a Super-8 camera to capture little snippets of things. I knew I was never going to be like Leonard Cohen but I had my own observations.”

And so the album drew on Woomble’s time spent in the Highlands and Islands, name-checking hills and crofts while the artwork even came with a map of the Hebrides. Hardly your standard indie rock fare, but it was perhaps this intelligent, off-the-beaten-track ethos that helped endear the album to listeners once the sheen of production and accomplished songwriting had left their initial mark. This maturity also spread to the band’s listening habits, most notably Woomble’s unlikely curve-ball. “I started to re-listen to folk music around that time as well,” he admits. “It was always around, growing up with my Mum and Dad, but then I got to the age of fifteen and was like ‘No, no way. Give me noisy riffs.’”

Whilst it would be foolhardy to sell Windows as a folk album, it hides a certain rustic flavour to balance out those ‘noisy riffs’. It was something that perhaps further isolated Idlewild from the burgeoning Scottish scene at the time. As bands such as Mogwai and Arab Strap drew on the experiences and influences of the world immediately around them, Idlewild seemed to have their hearts set in either flannel-era American rock or traditional Scottish folk. “My ears weren’t really open to other things,” says Woomble of his old self. Hardly surprising then that Idlewild seemed to operate in their own little world at the time.

In terms of the album’s legacy, both are initially surprised at it being singled out, Woomble himself claiming fourth album Warnings/Promises to be his personal favourite. Jones hasn’t listened to it for “years and years and years”. Woomble meanwhile is unsure if he’ll ever be able to again. “While you’re working on something, it’s yours and you can obsess over it and listen to every nuance to death,” he explains. “Then the minute it comes out, it feels like it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Listening to it is a bit like looking at yourself in the mirror for hours. It’s not really healthy.”

As much as he may distance himself from it, Woomble does feel it’s only recently that Windows has seen its acclaim rise significantly. “The record we put out after that, The Remote Part, completely overshadowed 100 Broken Windows,” he points out. “It was in the top three and we were on Top of the Pops and magazine covers and were seen as a big band for a number of years.” But like the band they are perhaps most likened to, REM, later commercial success has helped shine a spotlight on a more rewarding back catalogue. “We still meet sixteen year-olds coming to gigs who have just discovered 100 Broken Windows,” Jones marvels.

Woomble perhaps best sums up where the band's collective head was at the time and how this shaped the album. “100 Broken Windows was very much, for me, us still getting somewhere, still finding our feet. I suppose that’s maybe the best era of any band, when they’ve gone beyond their debut but they haven’t quite got to the peak of their popularity yet; where they’re somewhere in between. It’s quite a pure area isn’t it?”

(Released: May 2000)