Now, before we start, let me set one thing straight: I like Maxïmo Park. Rather a lot actually. I queued to get tickets to one of their tiny preview gigs for Our Earthly Pleasures. I got lucky and won tickets to the album launch gig for the same record. I witnessed their triumphant homecoming gig at Newcastle Arena at the end of 2007, and as I write this I’ve seen them live more times than almost any other band on the planet (they’re currently tied with Arctic Monkeys at 9 gigs each). So, understand that it’s from the perspective of a fan that I weigh up the merits of their latest album, Quicken The Heart.
The opening signs were good – ‘Wraithlike’ suitably whetted my appetite when it appeared as a free single/teaser/whatever in the run-up to the album. With sirens blaring over the band’s trademark angular, spiky guitars, this was the sound of a band coming back with a bang, with Paul Smith’s vocal sounding urgent and purposeful. First single proper, ‘The Kids Are Sick Again’ didn’t quite have the same impact at first, but it turned out to be a grower thanks to its steady buildup of synths and guitars, and a catchy chorus that’s sure to provoke a wry smile – “I don’t mind losing self respect/I’ve done it before/And I’ll do it again”.
Smith’s lyrics were always one of the defining features of Maxïmo Park – sure, some may find them to be too wordy and vague, but I’d argue that he’s very good at conjuring up evocative images. See, for example, ‘A Cloud Of Mystery’, where he paints the picture of a girl dressing up as “her duty to the town”, while ‘Questing, Not Coasting’ brilliantly captures two wide-eyed lovers watching a lightning storm. However, it does seem that the lyrical clunkers are far more obvious on this album. The aforementioned ‘Questing, Not Coasting’ nearly shoots itself in the foot with the cringeworthy bridge line of “Hey you, what’s new/I know your face/Hey you, what’s new/Let’s go some place”, while ‘Let’s Get Clinical’s chorus bypasses the “so bad it’s good” category entirely and just comes off as cheesy. You can still play the fun game of ‘spot the reference to Newcastle’ though – my favourite being ‘In Another World (You’d Have Found Yourself By Now)’s nod to now-defunct nightclub-on-a-boat Tuxedo Princess (“But you’ll still end up on a revolving dancefloor in the middle of the river”).
The band have also tried hard to mix things up musically, with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, ‘Calm’ is brilliant – contrasting the effortless, mellow synth line of the verses with the grungey guitar and brooding lyrics of the chorus. ‘The Penultimate Clinch’, on the other hand, doesn’t quite fare as well – the menacing lyrics contrast well with the minor key tones at the beginning, but then the song makes a fairly sudden jump into a major key for the last minute or so, which comes off as a bit jarring. To be fair though, the band pull off this sort of transition far better on ‘Roller Disco Dreams’, making the song the kind of emotional rollercoaster that you’d expect from Maxïmo Park.
Another problem that Quicken The Heart suffers from is that it seems to burn itself out too quickly – with the exception of ‘Questing, Not Coasting’, the last four tracks aren’t particularly great. ‘Tanned’ seems fairly pedestrian and lacking in imagination, ‘Overland, West Of Suez’ chugs along before breaking down into a coda that ends far too abruptly, and ‘I Haven’t Seen Her In Ages’ has a fantastic chorus line (“She ripped me to shreds/I haven’t seen her in ages”) but not a great deal else going for it. It also feels to me like the latter song also closes the album with a sense of “…oh, is that it?” – going out with a shrug rather than a bang or a whimper.
So overall, it’s a difficult album to judge. On the one hand, the record has its moments of brilliance, but it’s not quite consistent enough to make it a great album. Equally though, there’s nothing that’s outright bad on it – the odd pedestrian number and some lyrical and musical mis-steps aren’t anywhere near enough to place Quicken The Heart in the ‘terrible’ category. And so we’re left with an album that’s resoundingly “ok” – the sound of a band largely on auto-pilot, but occasionally showing signs of the brilliance we know they’re capable of. There’s nothing on this record that really grabs you by the ears and shouts “I AM AN AMAZING SONG” like, say ‘Apply Some Pressure’, ‘Our Velocity’ or ‘By The Monument’ (to name but three), but with repeated listens it eventually reveals its charms.
So, as Smith sings on ‘Roller Disco Dreams’: “If it’s a grower/why can’t we take things slower?” If, like me, you weren’t particularly enamoured with Quicken The Heart on first listen, give it a few more spins. I promise you that it’ll at least become less average, at any rate.