Review Summary: Chumbawamba prove that there is life beyond Tubthumping, and follow up their radio breakthrough with one of the best albums in their career.
Anyone who has listened to the radio for more than five minutes during the late 1990s will be familiar with Chumbawamba and their smash hit Tubthumping
(also unofficially known as I Get Knocked Down
). What most casual listeners blasting the infectious pop-rock anthem on their way to work will not know is that the British anarco-rockers are anything but one-hit wonders, having built a long and dignified career both before and after Tubthumping
In fact, it can almost be argued that the ubiquitous song is an anomaly in Chumbawamba's career. Its runaway mainstream success (which single-handedly helped carry what was one of the weakest offerings in the band's catalogue) contradicted everything the project stood for, and will no doubt have presented the group with a sticky situation. On the one hand, the millions of bandwagon-jumpers would no doubt be claiming for a new Tubthumping
to rock out to in their commute; on the other, the group had to be careful not to compromise their principles in the name of the almighty dollar, thus alienating the small but solid fanbase they had acquired over the previous decade. It was a lose-lose situation, and it was up to Chumbawamba to choose the lesser of two evils.
That is why it is so refreshing to note that WYSIWYG
, the band's first release after they had become hot mainstream commodities, sees the band choosing musical integrity over commercial success. It would have been almost too easy to write fifteen Tubthumping
soundalikes and rake in the bucks once again; in their 2000 opus, however, the group chose to go in the exact opposite direction, and, to their immense credit, came out with one of the best albums in their career.
In fact, one of the most surprising traits about WYSIWYG
is how universally strong it is. Most albums have their hits, their standouts, their weaker tracks and their fillers; Chumbawamba's millenial offering, however, achieves the remarkable feat of maintaining the same level of quality across four-fifths of its hefty twenty-two tracks, making for an overall stellar listening experience.
And yet, there is not that much to separate this album from other Chumbawamba albums of the 1990s. The group's overall sound continues to hinge on a duality between sneering male and saccharine female vocals, laid over a backing track of melodious, yet biting indie-pop. The difference is that, this time, the band's songwriting is consistently at its best, delivering songs so memorable that, if heard often enough, they will literally stay with the listener for years, just waiting for the appopriate moment to pop into their mind once again.
The secret to writing such catchy and memorable songs may lie in the group's willingness to Keep It Short and Simple. One of the unwritten rules of songwriting dictates that the ideal length for a song is from three to four minutes, and over half of these twenty-two cuts are not even half that long; in fact, a handful are scarcely more than snippets, with maybe one or two lines of lyrics and nothing even resembling a chorus. The fact that these are just as appealing as the longer cuts is, again, a testament to Chumbawamba's songwriting.
The "actual" songs on here veer between furious, horn-infused guitar-pop and a more introspective, minimalist side. The former is especially evident early on, with the opening blast of I'm With Stupid
, Hey Hey We're The Junkies
or I'm In Trouble Again
helping reel the listener in, whilst delivering the first few catchy choruses in an album littered with them. As the album progresses, the group's more melodious streak (already present in cuts such as Shake Baby Shake
) becomes more evident, giving rise to moments of haunting beauty such as The Standing Still
, the acapella cover to the Bee Gee's New York Mining Disaster 1941
or instantly catchy closer Dumbing Down
. These moments rely heavily on the beautiful voice of the group's lead female singer, coupling it with little to no instrumentation to great effect. On the flipside, tracks such as ready-made hit She's Got All The Friends That Money Can Buy
or the shamelessly accessible Celebration, Florida
continue to showcase the band's skill at writing more conventional songs, while snippets such as Moses With A Gun
or the irrepressible Knickers
get a chuckle out of the listener, contributing to this album's overall success.
All in all, then, WYSIWYG
is a resounding success, a more than worthy successor to Tubthumping
, and one of the great indie-pop albums of the new millenium. While not all
of the songs succeed, and while the group's blatantly anarchic lyrical stance sometimes goes a little over the top, only The Health and Happiness Show, WWW Dot, Jesus In Vegas, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Jerry Springer
and Smart Bomb
can objectively be considered weak(er) tracks - which, in an album with twenty-two songs, is no small feat. Another quality entry in an overall strong discography, WYSIWYG
not only proves that Chumbawamba were not your average one-hit wonder, but also makes the listener question why more people are not familiar with the band's discography beyond that smash radio hit. Stellar.
I'm With Stupid
I'm In Trouble Again
New York Mining Disaster 1941