Review Summary: In rude health or a terminal case? Maxïmo Park seek to diagnose a nation's problems on their fourth album
Maxïmo Park’s arrival in 2005 with A Certain Trigger
saw them thrown straight into a market already saturated with quirky British guitar groups. However, Darwinism applies in music as much as it does in the wild, and their infectious, literate and just straight-up solid tunes stood them in good stead, isolating them from the rest of their dunderheaded contemporaries. The group’s odes to suburban drudgery, complicated romance and war and peace spoke directly to many. The good work continued with 2007’s Our Earthly Pleasures
, a more refined version of what had come before. If they followed up with one more great record, their momentum could have been unstoppable. Instead, what followed was the lacklustre Quicken The Heart
. Aside from the jumpy single “The Kids Are Sick Again”, the album saw the group devolve their sound into a more forgettable affair. Maxïmo Park had lost their bite, the common touch that gained them critical plaudits and a dedicated following.
Perhaps sensing this, vocalist Paul Smith seemed determined to make The National Health
an album that would delve right into the heart of matters. "We're in a global recession and everyone is being bombarded with bouncy, happy music,” he said in an interview. “The nation is out of control and the record is about taking back control, and being a force for change in your own life. It can't speak for everybody but it has its eyes and ears all around us. That's always been a Maxïmo Park thing: look at yourself."
For all of his bluster however, Smith appears reluctant from the off to commit himself. “Do I really need to give an introduction? Must the artist bleed over the new production?” is the album’s opening couplet and one begins to wonder if he can back up his words with action.
…and yet, the album’s title track that comes immediately after is a frenetic affair. “England is ill and it is not alone” bellows Smith with a passion not heard since their debut record. Lead single “Hips and Lips” is perhaps the culmination of what Maxïmo Park have been trying to do since day one; passionate lyrics, neat synth stabs and a chorus that makes the heart race. It is the album’s standout track and could be the catalyst of something great at their live shows. All of the album’s high points coincide with the more fast-paced numbers. “Banlieue” is imbued with a dark and menacing streak, “Until The Earth Would Open” is everything you would come to expect from a Maxïmo Park song and album closer “Waves Of Fear” is a joyous song with a satisfying crunch underpinning everything.
Unfortunately there are times when The National Health
slides into a less palatable groove. “Take Me Home” is an anonymous by-the-numbers track, “Reluctant Love” suffers much the same fate and “Unfamiliar Places” is completely overshadowed by the fact that it’s followed by “Waves Of Fear.” The album also suffers from dipping into well-worn tropes and retreads characteristic of the group. Although Smith states a preference for writing about the ever-enigmatic ‘bigger picture’, his lyrics have a penchant for being immature. “Write This Down” opens with the line “You said you wanted someone just like me/You let me read it in your diary.” Not long after he regales us with how he spent “the summer kissing in a basement room.” It sounds like something a man of 33 should not be singing about anymore. It can sound puerile, pubescent and bordering on parody.
Despite this, and for all of his decrying of “bouncy, happy music”, Smith and the rest of Maxïmo Park have created a record that should put even the slightest hint of a smile on your face. They might always struggle to recapture the spark that drove their first two albums, but The National Health
might just be what the doctor ordered.