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With The Vaccines, for me, it’s been all about energy, energy, energy, combined on 2018’s Combat Sports with a newly spiced attention to production that prompted me to rank that best album of the year on this site. In general, they take what you might call a British approach to pop-punk, as the impetus for gimmick tends to be minimal, and the lyrical themes tend to veer toward metaphorical and ironic.
One thing that surprised me right away about the title track opener on this new album was the flashiness — in truth, I’d expected a gutbucket garage interface more harking back to The Stooges than anything they’d done thus. Instead, this stuff romps along briskly like a burlesque performance by The 1975, their fellow UK denizens, proud and strutting in almost-nauseating loverboy swagger, with something resembling the Franz Ferdinand post-punk drum beat, appropriately enough. But the energy is there, as I allude to before, as is this juicy, kind of surf-y guitar sound courtesy of lead guitarist Justin Young that boisterously and irreverently flanks the respective choruses.
“Alone Star” similarly gallops at a blistering pace through the night in similarly flashy fashion, one thing standing about this track being that the band just seemed INCREDIBLY tight, despite the fast pace and fairly complex drum beats. It actually took me to the point where I questioned whether this were actually a live drummer anchoring these beats, but Wikipedia still lists Yoann Intonti as a current member of the band, so it looks like it is really a drummer, amazingly enough.
“Headphones Baby” is another gem and at this point it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that this album is living up to all its hype. One thing that impresses me about is that, essentially, with its romantic themes and clean, compressed production, you could make an argument that the album plays as a multi-pronged lunge at radio play (all of the songs are pretty brief and adhere to fairly conventional verse/chorus structures), but, at the same time, the whole thing seems inspired and never to fall into staleness. “Headphones Baby” is an ode to geeky rock fandom with a brilliant chord progression not entirely unlike “Put it on a T-Shirt” from Combat Sports but “Wanderlust” shocked me with its aggression, tension and general confrontational sneer, as by track four on an album this poppy, you’d think we’d be certainly in line for a ballad like “Miserable” by Lit, or whatever. Sorry for that late-’90s reference there. Crazily, then, even track five maintains the amped-up speed and disposition, making it so that I can’t help but suspect some cocaine use in the studio, of course. “Paranormal Romance,” anyway, again showcases the production mastery courtesy of Daniel Ledinsky and some British guy who goes by the name of Fryars, giving the drums and the watery, textural guitar space within, oddly, a similar strategy that Nigel Godrich might have done on Ok Computer.
On the excellent, mournful and American “El Paso,” the guitar duo continues to set a gorgeous, even innovative sonic format, juxtaposing the warm and acoustic against the treated and fiery, like if Dashboard Confessional crashed a Pixies session, a bit. To be honest, by “Jump off the Top” I’m pretty much grasping at straws as to what on Earth is going on in the mix — all I can confidently say is that it’s a bunch of fancy production goop that kind of sounds like a guitar and kind of sounds like a synth (there’s still no “Personnel” section on this album’s Wikipedia page), but again, the whole things so coked-up and manic that you can’t help but move your head along. The same, you guessed it, holds for “XCT” (not an obvious reference to British post-punk band XTC, as far as I heard), which sort of fakes the handoff to balladry before sprinting right down that punk/mod lane that’s been the band’s habitat pretty much this whole album.
The primary drawbacks to Back in Love City, when the dust settles on this rather intriguing string of British rock we’ve been getting lately, will be few, but unmistakeable. One is that there’s nothing on here even remotely hitting at structural expansiveness — verses and choruses form the undisputed aristocracy here, disallowing for any modifications on their themes. The other one is kind of related, in a sense, which would be the absence of anything that seems really cathartic, like, say, U2’s “One” or Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” to name two songs that adhere staunchly to pop choruses but still find ways to emanate cathartically and gratifyingly, in terms of artistic innovation. The one possible exception to this would be “Heart Land,” their ironic love song of umbrage to the U.S.A., which is buried toward the back of the album at track 12. Really, though, I’m in turn glad I implicitly compared The Vaccines to U2 and Third Eye Blind, because Back in Love City really is a stride in production and guitar sound and sure it might not be “Staring at the Sun” or “Wounded” but to his credit, Justin Young, and whoever else is running this mob, hurl such a great variety and orchard of sounds your way by way of those six-strings that, well, your head is spinning. It’s about as simple as that.