The world can roughly be divided into two factions – those who love a good switched-on rock anthem and those who believe the phrase “I tell thee” shouldn’t be anywhere near popular song – so there’s some trepidation about Kaiser Chiefs’ fifth album. Expectation’s also haunted by the departure last year of drummer Nick Hodgson, who many believed to be the brains of the operation, and Ricky Wilson’s arrival on The Voice. We’ll see that the signature Kaiser sound hasn’t suffered, but can Wilson remain a credible rock star while he’s hanging with the likes of chart scourge will.i.am, pop figurine Kylie Minogue and orange car alarm Sir Tom Jones? Time to choose your side.
The Factory Gates
‘Education, Education, Education & War’ was recorded in Atlanta, Georgia with Animal Collective producer Ben H. Allen (who, intriguingly, will also be at the controls for the next Belle & Sebastian album), but from the off it’s rooted to these shores. ‘The Factory Gates’ opens with bitter wind and the squawk of seagulls, pulling your coat tighter around you, before Wilson and the chaps (now including new drummer Vijay Mistry) rediscover their flair for a big chorus in double-quick time. The theme is your place in the machine – “All aboard for the labour exchange… What you make on the factory floor/You take straight to the company store” – and your role in perpetuating the grim cycle. Welcome back!
There’s a softer flow to ‘Coming Home’, with light synth chords and twinkling guitars. It’s a bit like Mancunian mystics James, for all you gnarled veterans out there, and boasts a second singalong chorus on the trot (“We’re coming home… light a fire”) to prove once again that those chops are still intact, however hard will.i.am tries to infect Wilson with his anti-joy miasma.
Somewhat less cheer here – “Everyone leaves me/It’s so hard to keep company/I’m misery company” – but it has an undeniable, metallic stomp and grisly guitar bringing equal-part fun and equal-part howling despair. And a Wurlitzer, and a ‘Laughing Policeman’ of a “ha ha ha ha” chorus. “People don’t mention the straps on my sleeves,” sings Wilson, all “I’m mad, me!”, and to give him his due this does sound pretty much bananas.
Ruffians On Parade
“I study military maps/It helps me relax” – well, don’t we all. “I own a replica gun” – steady on. ‘Ruffians On Parade’ is the first track on the album to feature the patented Kaiser Chiefs run-up to the chorus, a flurry of “oh oh oh”s that let you know we’re about to burst out big before tattoos of drums tell us we’re in a makeshift army now (woah-oh-oh). The album title’s a reference to Tony Blair’s 2005 election pledge that “education, education, education” was the cornerstone of our nation’s future. The “& War” passes judgement on the rest of his legacy.
Meanwhile Up In Heaven
A moment of light relief, away from the day-to-day downtrodden drudgery? There’s rolling piano, a guitar wanged on every beat and a tumbling, sweet chorus at its peak. It’s a little like ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ getting a bit of a move on, and latches onto your brain nicely. “Picture yourself by a rocket… in a silver suit… getting on it/Saluting the news crews,” sings Wilson, making a right hash of the ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ lyrics.
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One More Last Song
“Keep on pressing/Teach ’em a lesson/Hold the line… We haven’t broken any laws” – the album feels like the natural successor to ‘I Predict A Riot’, the “angry mob” showing no intention of backing down, fighting the good fight as the economy crashes all around them and everyone gets almightily screwed. Good times! ‘One More Last Song’ is intense and committed, a Jam guitar riff giving way to a thrilling chorus where synths pile on and the seams creak.
But there always was a part of Kaiser Chiefs that wanted to be Duran Duran. Or at least wanted to be Blur being Duran Duran on ‘Girls And Boys’. Wrist-flicking riffs have that slightly lumpy white-boy funk, but ‘My Life’ turns out to be another intense attack, ever tighter, hammering home. “I didn’t want it/I didn’t need it/But it feels like/This is my life,” goes the resigned refrain.
Bows & Arrows
“You and me on the frontline…” More war-talk as Wilson whacks the big red button, spins his chair around and launches himself at the establishment. Watch out, he’s got a Wurlitzer organ on his side – which doesn’t seem all that threatening on the face of it until you realise this sounds like The Stranglers. You wouldn’t have wanted to meet them on the frontline. They always looked like they were concealing a bike chain about their person.
While we’re flicking through the soundalikes, here’s Wilson doing his Rock Profiles David Bowie, a Croydon voiceover – “Look alive/Pick a side/Draw a line in the sand” – that intros discordant synths and a seething, sarcastic assault (“If we wanna be out by Christmas/We’re gonna need a lot more cannons”). The finishing chant drops to cow moos and helicopters and some apocalyptic commentary from – I think – Bill Nighy, who’s got previous with the Kaiser Chiefs.
The anger of ‘Education, Education, Education & War’ has been offset throughout by big, friendly tunes, but here it dissipates entirely for a slow sad scarf-waver. “There’s places I have to go/Before I’ll see the light,” sings Wilson letting in a little hope over chords not unlike Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘The Power Of Love’, possibly trying to harness that crucial John Lewis demographic. That’d be at odds with an album more interested in flinging a brick through the window – ‘Education, Education, Education & War’ takes our leaders to task, pinning them to the ballot box with vast festival choruses. Che Guevara, eat your heart out.