Few albums have more appropriate titles than In The Cold Wind We Smile. From those six words, you can gather that this record deals with adversity (cold wind), banding together (we) and hope (smile).
On the day that The Xcerts’ debut album turns ten years old, we are going to celebrate it by diving into the background, themes and legacy of the record. What were the driving forces behind its creation? How were those translated into a series of songs which are much more than the sum of their parts? How did the album dictate the the band’s career path for the next decade? We will find out, in Deep Cuts: In The Cold Wind We Smile.
The Xcerts are a three piece originating from Aberdeen who specialise in heartfelt pop songs. Formed by best friends Murray Macleod and Jordan Smith when they were thirteen, they have released four albums, the first of which was 2009’s ITCWWS. The long lasting friendship between Murray and Jordan would end up becoming a core element of the album. Originally, the band was completed by drummer Ross McTaggart, but when they decided to leave the North East and relocate to Brighton, Ross departed and was replaced by Tom Heron.
In the year before ITCWWS was released, the band toured with the likes of Twin Atlantic and Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, contemporaries who would have influenced elements of The Xcerts’ sound. You can hear the crisp, jagged tone of Twin Atlantic and the raw honesty of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly at various points on ITCWWS.
The record also pays homage to more established influences. Biffy Clyro had recently become a global phenomenon thanks to their soaring riffs. Murray has never been secretive about his love for 80s pop – and at this early stage of the band’s career, there are traces of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. More prominent though are the indie rock musings of bands like Idlewild and Manic Street Preachers.
Comparisons to Idlewild and Manic Street Preachers should perhaps come as no surprise. ITCWWS was produced by Dave Eringa, who worked on Idlewild’s seminal albums 100 Broken Windows and The Remote Part, as well as This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours, and Everything Must Go by Manic Street Preachers.
With a settled lineup, coming off the back of successful tours with their contemporaries, and with a renowned producer lined up, The Xcerts were on course to create a special album before they even set foot in the studio. All they had to do was come up with the songs to match.
ITCWWS is an album which blends a variety of themes. Principal among those is personal tragedy. Murray was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager, while Jordan lost his father during the writing sessions for ITCWWS. These hugely traumatic events feature heavily throughout the record. They are also connected to ideas of adolescent love and the coming of age experience as a whole.
I personally hear another theme on the album: geography. As someone who grew up in Aberdeen, I find it hard to dissociate these songs from my memory of the North East’s grey seas and merciless winds.
For me, the themes of ITCWWS can be summed up in two lines taken from the album’s second track, ‘Home Versus Home’:
“I lost love, you lost your father
I know it doesn’t compare, my heart and your despair”
In a track which pulsates Idlewild-esque spirit, the bridge sees Murray almost stunned into silence as he compares the trauma of his best friend losing his father and his relationship ending. There’s a whole world of emotions connected to the lines: love, grief, shame, guilt, and longing. Already we see that Murray is a storyteller capable of saying lots with very little.
Jordan’s loss can be felt at various points on ITCWWS, but it seems to come to the fore most prominently on ‘Home Versus Home’, ‘Do You Feel Safe?’ and ‘Just Go Home’. The latter two of these focus on learning to live with the pain of loss, one instrumentally and one lyrically.
‘Do You Feel Safe?’ is a confrontational track which echoes the disorientating, sickening feeling of loss. The chorus riff overflows with energy. I struggle to think of any Xcerts song which fills your head up so completely with wholesome, bombastic noise. The bridge is a completely different story. Jarring guitars turn into a few seconds of solemn, numbed quiet, before a truly awe inspiring outro of chaotic, cathartic fury.
‘Just Go Home’ takes a more considered approach to the topic. In the pre-chorus and choruses, Murray seems to offer Jordan support, telling him things will get better in the future:
“And all of this will end
Your pain and all your sadness
I am your best friend
And I know
That everything will change
Everything will change
Everything will change
‘Cause everything will”
Despite ‘Just Go Home’ having a greater lyrical focus, there is still space for another moment of catharsis in the shape of a unrelenting bridge, leaving the listener flattened by its sheer power.
The other major personal trauma which shaped ITCWWS was Murray’s Chrohn’s disease diagnosis. The most obvious instance of this is ‘Listen. Don’t Panic’, where he recalls the period around his diagnosis:
“I used to laugh like a child
But then I scream like a girl
My illness is my best friend
In your world
At fifteen, I feel a burning pain
The doctor starts to shake
My body’s broken
And I won’t be the same”
Murray not only comes face to face with the immediacy of his illness, but also comes to terms with the fact that it will affect him for the rest of his life. The rest of the song is more positive: Murray’s reminder to himself to remain calm when his illness takes hold and keep moving on.
When talking about adolescent love on ITCWWS, you have to return to those pivotal lines from ‘Home Versus Home’. “I lost love, you lost your father / I know it doesn’t compare, my heart and your despair”. Despite all the tragedy surrounding Murray and Jordan, the pull of young love is still strong enough to distract the frontman.
Of course when you are young, love is all consuming and the end of a relationship very traumatic. It is entirely understandable that Murray would see common ground between his heart and Jordan’s despair, before later in life reflecting and realising they did not equate.
‘Cool Ethan’ also touches on events surrounding the end of a relationship. Murray highlights the numbness and distance growing between two lovers, emphasising the lethargy and resignation of two people who realise their relationship is doomed but cannot summon the energy to be decisive one way or the other. It’s more brooding than the other tracks on ITCWWS, showcasing a stylistic diversity in the band.
The final song which focuses on lost love is ‘Aberdeen 1987’, a song so deeply nestled in the heart of every Xcerts fan that it seems almost pointless to talk about it. On it, Murray takes us on a journey through his teenage years, from getting drunk in Aberdeen’s St. Nicholas Kirk graveyard, sitting on Balmedie Beach and talking all night, to falling in love for the first time.
Murray doesn’t always stroll through his memory with fondness. Everything we see is tainted with a sense of “what-if?” and regret as he contemplates the choices he has made. It acts as a perfect bridge to discuss the theme of coming of age on ITCWWS.
The choices Murray reflects on come in the wake of the band’s move from Aberdeen to Brighton. It’s a huge move (both geographically and emotionally), one that was made in the best interests of The Xcerts’ career. What would have happened had they stayed put? Would Murray’s relationship have lasted? Would the band have gone on to achieve all they have? These are the kind of decisions we all have to make and live with as we reach adulthood.
Of course, the adversity faced by Murray and Jordan leading up to this album forced them to grow up quickly. That imposed coming of age is acknowledged on several tracks – most notably in ‘Listen. Don’t Panic’ and ‘Just Go Home’ – which push back against the duo’s tragedies.
The final theme of ITCWWS is geography. Having grown up in Aberdeen myself, these songs are vividly attached to certain places and landscapes in my mind.
As a whole, the album has a crisp bleakness to it which evokes the cutting wind blowing in off the North Sea. Each song has a specific setting in my mind’s eye: ‘Home Versus Home’ brings to mind hillsides covered in gorse bushes. ‘Lost But Not Alone’ could only ever make sense on the banks of the River Dee. The locations mentioned in ‘Aberdeen 1987’ are so ingrained in my mind that I almost picture myself sat next to Murray.
The reason geography is so pertinent to ITCWWS is in part due to the distinct nature of Aberdeen’s environment, but perhaps more so thanks to Murray’s writing. Even at this early stage in his career, he made a name for himself as a lyricist able to set a scene and tell a story better than his contemporaries. His ability to do so helps ground these songs and give them context and substance which might otherwise be lacking.
The album’s closing track ‘I See Things Differently’ (we’re not looking at bonus tracks today), features a soaring outro which disintegrates into a stumbling, chaotic march held together by Tom’s rolling snare beats. In a way it mirrors the band’s outlook at the end of ITCWWS: shaken and battered, but resolute and moving on to better things.
This album allowed The Xcerts to do just that. Its legacy should not be underestimated in the career trajectory of Murray, Jordan and Tom. Every beat set the band up for everything to come.
From the opening notes of ITCWWS’s self-titled intro, The Xcerts introduced us to the melancholy they have embraced ever since. ‘Home Versus Home’ balanced that with more energetic choruses and angular instrumentation which would become a staple of every The Xcerts album to come. ‘Cool Ethan’ set a precedent for the darker tones which the band would dive into on their second album Scatterbrain, while ‘Listen. Don’t Panic’ actually has more in common with the pop stylings of Hold On To Your Heart.
Perhaps the two songs which best framed what the The Xcerts are all about are ‘Crisis In The Slow Lane’ and ‘Aberdeen 1987’. The first of these can be described in one word: epic. It blossoms from a gentle ballad which plods along to a soaring masterpiece destined to be sung by thousands. ‘Crisis In The Slow Lane’ was a real statement of intent from the band: they weren’t going to let anyone tell them they were a little distorted rock band, that they couldn’t write enormous anthems. It told us that The Xcerts were going to dream big.
‘Aberdeen 1987’ gave the band an identity. There are some songs which are inextricably tied to the artist which wrote them. Think Nirvana and you think Smells Like Teen Spirit. The Cure and Friday I’m In Love. The Killers and Mr. Brightside. ‘Aberdeen 1987’ is that for The Xcerts.
Why is that? I think it’s once again down to Murray’s songwriting. The story he tells, and the way he tells it makes ‘Aberdeen 1987’ relatable, memorable, and easy to sing along to. And my god do Xcerts sing along. There is no live experience I have ever encountered which can better a room full of Aberdonians calling out “I’m your new best friend, I’m your new haircut, I’m the alcohol that burns down your neck and into your gut”. It is an breathtaking phenomenon which still gives me goosebumps to this day.
In the year after ITCWWS was released, the band went on to support Idlewild, moved up to bigger venues on their own headline tour, and then began work on what would become Scatterbrain. They secured Mike Sapone to produce their second album. Mike had worked with Taking Back Sunday and Brand New previously and helped the band explore a darker, more menacing aspect of their personality.
The record also helped The Xcerts establish themselves amongst their contemporaries. They were poppier than Twin Atlantic and Sucioperro, but heavier than Frightened Rabbit and Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, and more cutting than Fatherson. ITCWWS allowed them to carve out their own space in a scene overflowing with emotive rock bands, giving The Xcerts space and time to progress and grow.
In The Cold Wind We Smile has stood the test of time because it deals with topics we all relate to: love, tragedy, and growing up. By telling the stories surrounding those themes, The Xcerts created an album which resonated deeply with fans. Stylistically, it gave the trio a strong foundation upon which they have steadily built over the course of three more albums.
I said at the top of this piece that the album’s title told you everything you need to know about ITCWWS. I actually think it also tells you everything you need to know about this band: scrappy, anthemic, hopeful.