The south Londoners look closer to home and deeper into their own being for inspiration on their fourth album
It was grounding themselves in their local area, London’s fast-changing Elephant & Castle, that gave The Maccabees a direction forward for their fourth album after they became mired in studio hell. And yet, though it’s the Elephant roundabout and not the band that adorns the record sleeve, and the people of south London that are captured in its lyrical vignettes, the title applies to the quintet themselves as much as to an area in turmoil.
Elephant & Castle, like much of London, is coming under the strain of gentrification, with expensive housing projects planned and long-term residents being edged out. The Maccabees’ career, meanwhile, has been one of more managed development. The transition from the lovable puppyish indie rock of 2007’s ‘Colour It In’ via the more muscular and varied ‘Wall Of Arms’ in 2009 to the expansive beauty of 2012’s ‘Given To The Wild’, is not one of radical or impetuous reinvention, but the gradual, hard-won evolution of a band who seem to develop more potential with every new phase.
The title track opens the record with its clearest statement of how far they’ve come and how far they could still go; it’s a stunner, a red-blooded, rambunctious revelation that leaps out even more than 2012’s crossover single ‘Pelican’ did from ‘Given To The Wild’. Its playful, raw-tongued guitar licks chomp at the bit to run free, a rough-throated scream in the distance of the mix, a war cry for the approaching riffs. It links the grandeur of ‘Given To…’ Maccabees with the energy and fun of their early days, and does things you’ve never heard them do before.
There’s nothing else quite as striking on the rest of the album, but what there is instead is a beguiling, unified whole; The Maccabees are very much an album band now, all about pace, texture and structure, and ‘Marks To Prove It’ reveals a sonic world just as beautiful as ‘Given To…’, but with even more control. The gently thrumming ‘Kamakura’ has an explosive chorus that’s resolved back into the lilting rhythm of the verse with delightful ease. ‘Ribbon Road’ too, with its rolling arpeggios and slow-building power is wonderfully smooth and textured, Orlando Weeks’ voice soaring more powerfully than ever.
It’s a beautifully crafted album, with Orlando’s lyrics their strongest ever, particularly on the affecting ‘WWI Portraits’ (“You are a rope-a-doper coming back queen/They all want you so bad, of course they do”), perhaps inspired by the Imperial War Museum on Elephant’s fringes. Occasionally you do wonder if, given the ugliness and anger caused by gentrification, a bit more bite to the sound might have made for an even stronger album; ‘Spit It Out’, the second most striking track on the album, does reveal an angrier Maccabees, and it’s a fascinating thing. Despite an excellent deployment of the word “spinnakers”, Orlando sounds positively unsettling, climaxing with a raw scream of “The thought of it brought us all down to our knees!”
It’s refreshing to hear what they can do when they cut loose, when they’re not afraid to be a bit raw and spiky; perhaps, now that they’ve found their base, more of that forceful energy might come through on album number five.
As it is, by turning their focus outwards, The Maccabees have paradoxically learned more about themselves, what they can do as a band and where they can go from here. It might not have been an easy path, but the bruises show on the end product as beautifully as a black-and-blue sunset.