Always the bridesmaids, Maximo Park were given an unnecessarily hard time by a lot of people first time round, for no greater crime than not being The Futureheads.
The original hyperactive north eastern angular art-popsters were adored by pretty much everyone. And the fact that such a similar crew came out with their eyes on the same prize and committed that cardinal indie sin of ambition soon left indie rock’s chattering classes conspiring to greet the band’s every move with a sneer. Little did they realise that with every scissorkick, Maximo were doing a convincing job of becoming massive on their own terms.
Then, when ‘A Certain Trigger’ had shifted 500,000 copies worldwide, Maximo got their big victory lap – the top slot on last year’s Shockwaves NME Awards Tour. Unfortunately for them, support band Arctic Monkeys chose that week to go stratospheric, leaving every bit of press coverage sounding as if the show had ended at 9.30pm. But anyone who stayed around at those shows will have seen what a genuinely impressive band Maximo Park had become. And a lot changes in a year. The Monkeys were so freaked out by their success that they retreated from the limelight, and The Futureheads were rewarded for the challenging ‘News And Tributes’ with their marching orders from label 679.
So, the way is clear; a great follow-up is all Paul Smith and co need to take over completely. Short, sharp and shocking was always their best trick, and things begin well, with extra layers of bruising guitar lending a heavyweight punch to ‘Girls Who Play Guitars’. Even better is first single ‘Our Velocity’, which works so well because of its fizzy, camp abandon, stream-of-conscious nonsense, eight-Bit Super Mario sound effects and breakneck way of getting faster and faster as it goes.
More moments like those two, plus the plaintive ‘Nosebleed’ and the chaotic ‘By The Monument’, might have made ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ brilliant. But it must settle simply with ‘quite good’ status because too much of the time Maximo Park have dipped their toe in the deep end of carefree experimentalism and then scurried off to Serious Rock School. The same dreaded desire-to-be-taken-seriously that led the Kaiser Chiefs to that awful sepia album artwork has kicked in, and it’s led them to ditch faddish-but-capable Paul Epworth and draft in Pixies producer Gil Norton.
Sure, Norton gives the songs a few extra pounds of credibility, but a big part of Maximo’s sense of mischief has also been stifled: entirely likable songs are slowed down to mid-pace and have had, you sense, had a lot of their more obtuse angles smoothed over. ‘Your Urge’ eventually turns into a monster-truck, but takes ages to get there, while ‘Books From Boxes’ never quite gets going.
Meanwhile, Paul Smith now apparently regards himself as some sort of indie version of installation artist Marcel Duchamp, the man who put toilet bowls into art galleries – high art mixed with mass production. Smith has shown himself as a barbed and insightful diarist of girl trauma and mid-20s awkwardness. So it’s more than a little bit puzzling that an overarching theme on ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ seems to be, er, town and country planning. He spends much of the album wandering round urban cityscapes surveying man’s impact on the environment. “The lines of transport make their way through towns”, wails ‘The Unshockable’, while ‘Russian Literature’ bemoans buildings with “no market value to justify the price of the rent”. It continues into ‘By The Monument’ and ‘Sandblasted And Set Free’ – which actually does contain the line “The Earth is solid, you can dig it up, or you can pave it over”. Is Paul trying to make some sort of allegorical link between urban expansion and the human heart, or is he just writing songs about really fucking weird stuff? This would all be far less confusing if so many lyrical tongue-twisters didn’t overshadow the songs themselves: “We’ll meet in Russian literature for a florid day”, “codify your utterance” and, best of all, “You paradigm of womankind you could be mine” all crop up, and all jar to differing extents with the seriousness with which ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’ seems to take itself. Maybe he should write a book about urban regeneration, or maybe he’s just struggling for material, under pressure to deliver a second album that needs to be both fun and serious; both big and credible; both shiny and grown-up; both struggling with his girl issues and appearing to have moved on to bigger things. With all that to prove, the end result was always going to fall between at least a few of those stools. Ultimately, Maximo Park have bravely taken a chance with this album, trying to experiment with their sound rather than settling for what had previously brought them success. Shame they weren’t up to the task.