Album Review: Maximo Park – The National Health

By on Friday, 15th June 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Maxïmo Park burst onto the scene in 2005 with their Mercury-nominated Warp album A Certain Trigger, followed by an album every other year… until 2011, when this writer concluded that they were on indefinite hiatus, with Paul Smith himself declaring, “we needed to have a break.” Just enough time to record a modest solo album, eh, Paul? But only a year behind schedule, shiny long-player ‘The National Health’ is here. Ostensibly something to do with an “out of control nation”, this could be a very important throw of the dice for the ‘Park lads – with critical acclaim slowly diminishing since their debut, they really need to pull something out of the bag here.

They make a decent start: ‘When I Was Wild’ is a lovely minute-long amuse-oireilles, and then it’s into the punchy title track. ‘The National Health’ joins a growing band of recent songs reflecting disaffection within contemporary society, but in common with the rest of the album it falls short on details – the lyrics are vague enough as to avoid explaining why “England is ill and it is not alone”. Monetary crisis? Political weakness? Societal decay? Paul Smith declines to be more specific, which is a shame, as the song is a strong one, driving along at a fierce tempo, only the slightly odd middle eight (“I went down to the council today / they sent me away / my word holds no sway”) dropping hints that maybe it’s the inertia of local government that’s got him all hot under the collar.

That particular triplet also encapsulates a widespread lyrical difficulty – that of the rhyme for rhyme’s sake. They’re all over the place, and they stand out like the lazy agglomerations that they are, as they did on Smith’s solo album. They even infect a song title, “Hips and Lips”, which in this case is forgivable as it’s a decent pop song, with its mixture of electronica, hazily suggestive vocals, and powerful guitars. The video is a particular treat. ‘The Undercurrents’, a widescreen, end-of-the-pier, lighters-aloft piece, is just crying out to soundtrack a particularly poignant moment in Hollyoaks, and completes a successful first third of the album.

After such a strong start, what follows is somewhat baggy in comparison – competently executed, and on occasion downright catchy, but it’s all a little lacking in spice, consisting as it does mostly of wistful romanticisms. ‘Write This Down’ is a complaint about a girl with a diary, and I forget what comes next until ‘Banlieue’, which is found face down in a puddle, complaining “here come the animals”, evoking the burning cars and peripheral urban vice after which it is named. There’s a lovely, by which I mean screamingly dissonant, interplayed guitar/synth solo – why isn’t there more of this stuff elsewhere? Then it’s business as usual, back to the pseudo-easy-listening pop-rock of ‘This Is What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted’ et al. It’s not until the very last track ‘Waves Of Fear’ that the band pick up their skirts and dare to get angular and dangerous again. And by then it’s a bit too late, really.

Just to put things into context: there’s a bandwagon emblazoned with “State of the Nation Address” at the minute, and these guys have jumped straight on it with the “The National Health” concept. To which I say: where were you five or even ten years ago when things were starting to go pear-shaped in this country but it wasn’t too late to do something about it? I’ll stick my neck out and say these sentiments are sticking their necks out right now because the the rug has suddenly been pulled from under certain sections of client society’s cosy oblivion, and there’s currency to be made in pandering to their fears, 1984-style. Pretty cynical if you think about it, but I’m sure the band would argue that they have their audience’s best interests at heart.

In the end, for all Smith’s pronouncements of contemporary relevance, the record sounds like it could have been made at any time in the last ten, or possibly even twenty, years. Which is not necessarily a bad thing: there’s elements of early Britpop which bring back fond memories for those of a certain age, even if they serve only as impetus to break out a few old Menswear or Gene CD singles. There’s very little here that’s scary, or challenging, or specific, and there are melodies, hooks, and decent playing throughout, which means it could do very well in the CD racks of Tesco North Shields, or the Metro Centre Asda, and in the end that’s the whole point of pop music. On the same lines, a lot of these tracks could be pretty successful singles, appealing to Radio 2’s edgier side. It does have one, honest.

However, anyone hoping for a musical thesis of what’s wrong with the world, from the peculiarly slanted perspective that living on Tyneside gives, will be sorely disappointed. Either the band aren’t capable of it, or they’ve avoided the matter for another day, either of which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. In one way a missed opportunity then, but overall there’s no doubt this is a decent album, that people can take to their hearts. If the country is in as such a mess as Maxïmo Park say it is, every comfort helps.

7/10

Maximo Park’s ‘The National Health’ is out now on V2 / Co-Op in the UK and in America as a joint venture between the band’s own Daylighting Records label and brand new North American label Straight to the Sun, a part of the Musebox Label Group.

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