Review Summary: A hotch-potch of Snow Patrol, climate change, and uncertainty makes Athlete's third album a non-starter.
Popular music has been blighted, consistently, by the obsession on finding the new version of something old. Most people, quite rightly, dismiss it as a dumb practice that achieves little or nothing, but it continues unabated - Badfinger were the new Beatles, David Bowie was the new Scott Walker, both Van Halen and The White Stripes were the new Led Zeppelin, Radiohead were the new Nirvana in 1993 and then the new Pink Floyd in 1997, Oasis were the new Beatles, Blur were the new Kinks, Jewel was the new Joni Mitchell, Coldplay were the new Radiohead, Trivium were the new Metallica, The Strokes were the new Television, and everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Warren Zevon to Nick Cave to Bright Eyes was/is the new Bob Dylan.
Which brings to today, and the search for 'the new Coldplay' that's been an undercurrent in the British press since A Rush of Blood to the Head
was released, and can be used to explain the UK success of one-year (if not one-hit) wonders like Daniel Powter, The Fray, and The Feeling, and the steady stream of bands like Keane, Snow Patrol, and Ben's Brother into the charts. Athlete briefly found themselves at the forefront of that search with 2005's Tourist
; their case stands out because they got there entirely by design. "Half Light" and particularly "Wires" were decent songs, with an impressive cinematic sweep to them, but they were executed with more than a hint of cynicism, and were far removed from what made Athlete a little bit special in the first place. Hard to remember it now, but 2003's Vehicles & Animals
was a cute, unassuming record with a lot going for it - certainly, it was free of the bombast that made Tourist
a little disappointing. Back then they sounded more like Gomez than Coldplay, and they sounded more like bedroom music enthusiasts than stadium stars in waiting. Even when they sang about race riots, on "You Got The Style", they wrapped it up in an unmistakably upbeat arrangement, just as they did when they sang about being English white guys who liked rap ("Westside") or weekend jaunts to exotic locales like "Dungeness". In transition from the first album to the second, it felt like something (maybe innocence, maybe honesty) had been lost.
So naturally, I wanted this album to be a return to Vehicles & Animals
, or at least an acknowledgement that being a massive stadium draw and selling squillions of records wasn't the be-all and end-all. That kind of rampant commercial ambition works in some hands - Springsteen didn't seem too bad at it, for instance - but for Athlete it was a step backwards after a promising debut that saw them earn wild comparisons to The Flaming Lips and The Beach Boys in some quarters; comparisons that have become more hilarious with every passing month.
The initial signs aren't good. The first track is an instrumental that sits somewhere between post-rock and trip-hop, but rather than sounding like a genre experiment, it sounds like the band are afraid to commit to either. It's not bad, but it remains a shaky start. Amusingly, this track boasts the title "In Between 2 States"; a title that fits proceedings so perfectly, it should have been used for the album rather than just the first track. "Hurricane" is the first real display of where Athlete have found themselves on their third album, and it's a confused no man's land between Vehicles & Animals
. The first lyric that sticks out is a reference to 'playing hide and seek', which suggests that we're back in the playful territory of Vehicles
. Then, confusingly, the band invokes the spirit of Led Zeppelin for a reference to 'giving up the coastline'. Thankfully, there's no "Immigrant Song"-styled orgasmic yelps or war cries, but it remains confusing and jarring. Sonically, it errs on the side of Tourist
, except it now sounds more derivative of Snow Patrol than Coldplay.
The title of "Hurricane" is another portent for the rest of the record - Athlete spend altogether too much time here bitching about global warming (which, presumably, explains the coastline lyric above). Athlete are fond of including not-so-subtle bridges in their songs in an attempt to move things into another gear emotionally; here's the one found in "Hurricane".
I don't wanna run
Up in here since I was young
What we see today
Could be gone within the hour
What you gonna do to us this time?
Within six lines, the album summarized. Two lines of Vehicles
, two lines of Tourist
, two lines of Al 'Internet' Gore at his ManBearPig best. In a month that also sees Joni Mitchell release an album that contains a re-recording of "Big Yellow Taxi", this is likely to fail to get anybody interested in either climate change or this album.
It really does continue exactly like that; for the first half of this album, Athlete may as well be re-creating the brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange
with An Inconvenient Truth
as the film. "Tokyo"? 'I am an army of wind turbines marching over your countryside'. "Airport Disco"? 'Beautiful world/I will try to win you back'. "It's Not Your Fault"? 'It's not your fault/You've given every part of you that they could spend/Mixed between the petrol and the wildlife/And it's cold!'. "The Outsiders" contains references to clouds and English air, and even on the seemingly basic love song "Second Hand Stores", the chorus is about something 'bleeding out of the summer sky'.
The fixation on global warming does, at least, give them a sense of purpose and focus. There are plenty of signs here that, without a concept to latch on to, they'd have lost both entirely - "The Outsiders", for instance, is a clumsy attempt to co-opt the sound of Radiohead's Hail To The Theif
and lyrics of Randy Newman's "Political Science" that's fooling nobody. But it's in the second half of the album that we really feel Athlete's confusion. "Second Hand Stores" starts with some fairly useless experimentation with feedback and a synth that sounds just about old enough to be used by Enter Shikari, and seems to feature a violin simply for the sake of featuring a violin. You'll also find the album's most atrocious lyric here - 'Let's sing for Canada/Coz that's where this song began/Born out of true romance'. And yet, at its heart, this is the kind of song they made their name with - a love song literally set in a second hand store, it's a little on the nerdy side, but it's certainly sincere. So why have they buried it under sonic bluster, and wedged in at least one lyric that seems directly in keeping with the theme of climate change? The signals are so mixed, it's hard to know exactly what Athlete were hoping to achieve with this track. The songs in and around this area of the album are pieced together from bits of Snow Patrol (compare "In The Library" to "You're All I Have"), Coldplay, Bloc Party's ballads, and previous Athlete songs, with the band seeming entirely unable to figure out what to do with what they've put together. It's derivative, uninteresting, and confusing. Even the best song here, "Flying Over Bus Stops", is more a bunch of good ideas in search of something to do than a good song. Athlete simply don't seem to know who they are anymore.
And yet, there's one track here where Athlete do stumble upon something approaching an identity of their own. Their new-found ability to give their songs perfect names manifests itself again here - the song where Athlete figure out what they should sound like is called "This is What I Sound Like". It's easily the most epic thing on Beyond The Neighbourhood
, for the simple reason that it doesn't try as hard as what comes before it. Musically, it's the most stripped down thing here, wih the slowly escalating power in the song's lyric handled brilliantly by the arrangement and the gentle lift of the melody. What's more, it sounds like the work of a band who are simply trying to get their feelings off their chest, rather than one trying to sell records. If Athlete were trying to blend Tourist
and Vehicles & Animals
, which I'm certain they were, then this is the perfect example of how to do it. Hopefully, they'll manage better next time around. Sadly, though, this is their third album, and the soft-rock market is flooded. They may be out of chances.