Is Britain still broken, Mr Cameron? Of course it is.
Despite their ahem best efforts, the mantra coined by Dave
and his troupe of Etonian chums still rings true today. In fact, with
rising unemployment, a crumbling public sector and general apathy
towards, well, anything not hosted by Simon Cowell, it’s fair to say
2012’s Britain is not just broken, but utterly fucked. The big society
is one big, whopping catastrophe.
It’s at times like these where you need music to articulate the
political, social and economic condition of a nation; a sound to fan the
embers of disillusioned youth into a raging, ambition-fuelled fire. But
what have we got? Dizzee Rascal, Jessie J and Ed Sheerin. Not exactly
bastions of anti-establishment fervour. Then again, who is these days?
Well, with a new album entitled The National Health, perhaps perennial indie middleweights Maximo Park
are throwing their hat into the protest-songwriting ring. They are,
after all, prime candidates: their ardent Geordies roots and bouncing
guitar anthems have been flailing the sweat-smothered limbs of UK youths
since the rambunctious melodies of A Certain Trigger mainlined into the public domain in 2005.
Yet frontman Paul Smith’s rousing claims that The National Health
is 'about taking back control' prove slightly misleading. The title
track’s full-paced guitar thrashing and gargantuan chorus line
suggesting “things will change tomorrow” is one of only two
openly questioning cuts on a record that prefers to veer into the band’s
traditional terrain of sordid sex talk and misanthropic romanticism.
This shouldn’t be a deterrent, however. While The National Health
may be lacking in political balls, it represents a return to some
semblance of form for a band that was coasting to oblivion after 2009’s Quicken the Heart.
The grubby brawl of ‘Hips and Lips,’ in particular, feels monumental;
jetting out on austere Tubeway Army-style synthesizers before exploding
into a cacophony of driving guitars and drum. It's a remarkably
bare-cheeked blowout, made all the more curious by Smith's Jamie
Stewart-like wrangling over the complexity of pouting partners.
Much of the album finds Smith turning to the pantheon of British
indie-pop for inspiration, a move that serves up some decidedly mixed
results. His rose-tinted spiel of going to the “verge of England’s ocean”
during ‘Until the Earth Would Open’ is as weary and spiritless as the
jangling melody that surrounds it. Yet, his blatant Morrissey-borrowing
on ‘Reluctant Lover’s mid-tempo swoon holds much promise; peppering sly
linguistic nuances into his sorrowful miaow helps massage out a
substantial, tear-stained lament.
This contrast in style characterises the record’s, and possibly
Maximo Park’s, biggest failing - one step forward is often followed by
another step back. So, while ‘Write This Down’s juddering riff and the
wild motorik of ‘Banlieue’ – a bestial album high – imply the band have
finally nailed their colours to a more courageous mast, their integrity
is let down by the paceless balladeering found on ‘The Undercurrents’
and ’What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’, both of which unveil a
worrying penchant for Snow Patrol-like ennui.
Still, within these 14 cuts exists clear traces of a band that could
still serve up something special. But, for now, rather than
jet-streaming Maximo Park back into the limelight, The National Health
gives the likeable quintet a firm footing from which to stop their
seemingly inevitable decline. Given the current state of Cameron’s
Britain, that’s probably not such a bad result.