For their fifth album, The Vaccines are trying something new – a concept record, of sorts. They might not have gone into ‘Back In Love City’ with the intention of doing so (“I’m coming to terms with the fact that it potentially is a concept record,” frontman Justin Young recently told NME), but its themes help create an alternative world to immerse yourself in, without over-egging its ideas.
The premise is this: Love City is a fictional locale, inspired by movie dystopias from Blade Runner and Cowboy Bee-bop, by the likes of Las Vegas and the love hotels of Tokyo. It’s a place in the far-flung future where love and other emotions have run dry and the only way to feel them surge through your body again is to plug into them, as if they’re batteries in need of recharging.
Sonically and lyrically, that concept manifests itself through the album in both obvious and subtle ways. Lead single ‘Headphones Baby’ sounds like cruising down a city street flanked by the dazzling sight of hundreds of flashing neon signs. “I wanna live inside your headphones, baby / I wanna live inside a world wherever you are,” Young sings, nodding to the idea of being able to jump into a virtual world of romance. The title track is darker, Freddie Cowan’s Ennio Morricone, spaghetti western guitars adding a sinister layer. “We can’t buy love ’cause we spent it all on you,” Young laments. “So we’re saving up, now we’re back in Love City.”
Writing around a loose concept isn’t the only way that The Vaccines keep things fresh on ‘Back In Love City’. Although the band’s core DNA – vibrant, fun bangers that make you want to race straight to the heart of your nearest indie disco – is still present on this album, but with new elements brought into their sound. Cowan’s aforementioned Morricone-indebted riffs are a constant throughout, transporting you to the dusty desolation of a desert on the outskirts of neon paradise. ‘Alone Star’ does just that, bringing video game sound effects into play at the same time, making it sound like you’re surfing through a sci-fi version of the Grand Canyon in a VR headset.
At other points, things take a turn through country guitars – as on the fingerpicked prettiness of ‘El Paso’ – or veer off in the other direction and goes punk. The latter is most brilliantly deployed on ‘XCT’, which builds from creeping verses to an explosion of a chorus. “There’s a rumour going round that I’m empty, but only cos I didn’t fit in XCT,” Young hollers . “They all H-A-T-E hate me, why you wanna go to XCT?” The dynamics rise and fall throughout the song, before it blasts off one last time in a wall of sound, Yoann Intonti’s thundering drums leading things to a clattering close.
If anthemic indie is an essential part of who The Vaccines have always been, then equally is a fondness and romanticisation of America. Throughout the past 11 years, the band have taken influence from the iconography of US pop culture (2012 single ‘Teenage Icon’’s name-checking of American teen idol Frankie Avalon, for example) and taken the simplicity of bands like The Ramones or The Modern Lovers’ Jonathan Richman, and the pop sensibilities of The Beach Boys – and made them their own. It’s absolutely no surprise, then, that ‘Back In Love City’ contains a love letter to America in the nostalgic sparkle of ‘Heart Land’.
“I’m not giving up on my love for you, America,” Young sings from the perspective of a teenage boy, dreaming of things associated with it from the other side of the pond. “Man on the moon, milkshake and fries,” he lists. “Dogs that can surf, warm apple pies.” It’s pure, wholesome and intentionally naive, but lines like “Land of hope and paradise” also subtly force us to confront our own visions of American utopia with the reality we see on the news every day.
The final strand of The Vaccines’ fundamental elements revolves around Young’s lyricism and his ability to write in eternally quotable ways that feel inherently plugged into the zeitgeist and culture of the time. ‘Back In Love City’ is no different, as he he drops lines such as “Name a more iconic duo / Waited all my life for you” on the strutting ‘Bandit’. “Can’t pop the question if you’re live on Reddit,” he quips on ‘Headphones Baby’, while his digital existence gets severed temporarily on the waltzing closer ‘Pink Water Pistols’: “Can’t call a cab and I can’t read your reply / The Tower Of London cut off my free Wifi.”
Five albums and 11 years in, you might expect a band of The Vaccines’ ilk – one that came up through in the latter years of so-called “landfill indie” – to be past their prime now. ‘Back In Love City’ refutes that assumption emphatically, presenting instead a band still at their very best and still brimming with ideas, invention and – most importantly – a knack for writing great songs.
Label: Super Easy/AWAL
Release date: September 10, 2021