“So what’s the prognosis? On the basis of the 13 tracks presented here, Maxïmo Park’s condition is stable…” – MacDara on Maximo Park‘s new LP The National Health.
Do I really need to give an introduction?” Paul Smith kicks off The National Health – the don’t-call-it-a-comeback album from Maxïmo Park – with confirmation that we’re not in for much of a shake-up, despite the impression of a sharper political edge the title implies.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think back to 2005 when Sunderland’s The Futureheads released their second album. I loved their first one – the herky-jerky energy, the singing in their own accent, the quirky songs about life’s mundanities like phone calls, and starting a new job – but News & Tributes was so bad it’s still the only record I’ve ever taken back to the shop for a refund. They’d only gone and ‘matured’: that dreaded concept, so often used without a hint of irony, to describe when bands discard everything that’s interesting or unique about their sound to appeal to the type of people who buy their music at Tesco. They’ve spent the years since trying desperately to reclaim that certain something that made them so vital; they even released an all a cappella album a few months ago, to all but zero fanfare.
Meanwhile, in nearby Newcastle, fellow post-punk revivalists Maxïmo Park – y’know, that rock band signed to Warp – were that other band with a frontman singing in his North West accent. But where The Futureheads were kids let loose in the toyshop, Maxïmo Park were a bit more adult, more cheekily cerebral, with a sophisticated streak underlying the porcupine-prickly pop of their debut A Certain Trigger, all slashing guitars, burbling synths and solid rhythm.
Follow-up Our Earthly Pleasures might have lacked the hooks of ‘Going Missing‘ or ‘Apply Some Pressure‘, toning own the Devo-isms and concentrating more on the mid-tempo numbers, but its overall sound seemed to show they were happy doing what they were doing – if ‘happy’ is a word one can apply to laments of failed relationships. But more importantly, it showed no signs of kowtowing to external pressures to ‘mature’; the rough edges sanded down a little, maybe, but not completely smoothed over. What need to mature when you’re already grown up? 2009’s Quicken The Heart took a similar tack, but was perhaps too subdued to capture the imagination.
Three years on and Maxïmo Park have a new label in V2, and perhaps some frustrations to get off their collective chest. For sure, musical comment on the current failings of the free market capitalist system comes two-a-penny these days, but it’d be a new one for Paul Smith, so used to examining the foibles of his past indiscretions, to put the state of the nation under his microscopic focus.
Lyric-wise, the title track is Smith at his angriest, even if its a muted listen in comparison. The title ‘Waves Of Fear‘ could describe the mounting dread that Britain feels as the inevitability of austerity sinks in. And on ‘Until The Earth Would Open‘, when Smith sings “Don’t punish me for who I can’t be” is he addressing a love interest, or the government?
But by and large, Smith’s traditional themes dominate the lyrics, and tune-wise it’s pretty much business as usual: the likes of ‘This Is What Becomes of the Brokenhearted‘ could be outtakes from any of their previous albums. There’s some new territory on the appropriately titled ‘Unfamiliar Places‘, the band stripping back with a melancholy Americana-infused acoustic rendering, Smith almost whispering in the solemn atmosphere. He even tries out the lower registers on ‘Banlieue‘ and ‘Hips and Lips‘ for a disconcerting effect. And ‘Waves of Fear‘ is a welcome comeback to the boisterousness of their debut. Yet the bulk of the album, while pleasant enough, doesn’t linger long in the mind.
So what’s the prognosis? On the basis of the 13 tracks presented here, Maxïmo Park’s condition is stable, which should keep the fans relieved at least.