The Bravery, then: priapic quiff-rockers about to de-flower(s) the Killers-obsessed indie-nation, or calculating chancers set to self-destruct in their own tsunami of hype?
You’d have to be Ellen MacArthur not to have an opinion. Formed barely a year ago in their adoptive New York and signed by Polydor subsidiary Loog, following the compulsory A&R scramble, they have since completed a riotous month-long residency at London’s Metro and blanket-bombed radio to the degree that debut single ‘Unconditional’ already has the time-worn feel of an indie classic. What’s more, everyone from zeitgeist-hungry broadsheets to Jo Whiley have used their Sensyon-like powers to rubberstamp them as ‘band of 2005’ – rivalled only by the far more cuddly Bloc Party.
Their cunning plan, of course, is to replicate The Killers’ perfect pop-heist and return to the States as conquering heroes, just like The Strokes and The White Stripes before them. This sort of tit-for-tat cultural exchange has driven rock’n’roll for half a century. But such fast-tracking comes with a heavy price. The gossip-heavy cubicles of indie-dom hum with rumours of singer Sam Endicott’s not-so-chic past as a dreadlocked ska-punk goon, while interviews have seen the band boasting of their boozy (s)exploits in a manner you’d expect more from Donny Towers Of London than Gotham’s latest exponents of post-electroclash rock-tronica. Could The Bravery be all bravado and zero substance?
Their debut album answers all these questions emphatically. Musically it feasts upon Anglophile early ’80s electro-pop with a cavalier zeal. If the nods to Duran Duran are blatantly obvious ( ‘Honest Mistake’, for the first 15 seconds, just is ‘Planet Earth’; ‘Save A Prayer’ synths emerge attevery chorus) ‘The Bravery’ also serves as proof positive that rock’s retro-dial is now firmly tuned to 1981. Nods to Wiliamsburg neighbours The Rapture, Radio 4 and Inouk suggest these Chinatown residents are keeping abreast of developments across the East River, but there’s lashings of forgotten fairlighters from The Teardrop Explodes to The Cure in these bullet-proof three minute riff-tones.
But what riffs! ‘Fearless’ is a relentlessly cocky glam stomp, ‘No Brakes’ a sub-zero skate through The Cure’s ‘A Forest’ and ‘Tyrant’, a Stranglers-like synth-symphony, which in a sane world would pay attention to its chorus and be called ‘Words Of Wisdom’. It’s cracking stuff: four-square indie-rock blessed with the sweat, funk and frivolity of the Scissor Sisters’ dance floor. If there’s a minor dip halfway through with throwaway garage-electro thrash ‘Swollen Summer’ (let’s not dwell on what that’s about), a swaggering ‘Out Of Line’ and shameless Casablancas-meets-Lou Reed throb ‘The Ring Song’ ensure that anyone who was hooked by ‘Unconditional’’s relentless, thumping “I just want/I just want love!” chorus will not leave this album disappointed.
It’s bold, brash, trashy fun that will tempt Killers fans to
fall in lust all over again (mostly, let’s face it, with angelic guitarist Michael Zakarin) and ensure that this testosterone-addled quintet will clean up everywhere from Aberdeen to the Amazonian rainforest before 2005 is up.
Lyrically, however, is where it gets really interesting. Brimming over with anxiety and regret, ‘The Bravery’ suggests the polar opposite of their interview personas. Buried deep in the mix (perhaps due to their lo-fi home recording process as much as in homage to The Strokes), Sam Endicott cuts a vulnerable figure, unaware of his place in a world suddenly rocked on its axis. ‘Honest Mistake’ – a tale of a post-Twin Towers tryst conducted in the shag-fest fug that consumed the city after 9/11 – finds Sam, not as sexual predator but as bumbling insomniac, blurting out lines like “Sometimes I forget I’m still awake/I fuck up and say these things out loud!”.‘No Brakes’ is a confessional about life slipping out of control ending with: “I never know what I should do/Can I leave it up to you?” like early Mozzer on an off-day. On the Tom Tom Club-ish experiment ‘Public Service Announcement’ he lets his guard slip further, howling: “I’m stingy with words/All binge, no purge!” like the former bassist-turned-lead singer lothario he is. It’s a wickedly destabilising pop moment: proof that beneath the alien vampire image and sailors-on-shore-leave swagger, there beats a human heart after all.
We’d be kidding ourselves, of course, to suggest that ‘The Bravery’ has the cultural cachet of, say, ‘Is This It’. Its primary aim is to provide slick electro-rock satisfaction rather than a deeper emotional engagement. And, in a world where The Killers album ‘Hot Fuss’ has sold millions on being a masterclass in now-ness, musically, The Bravery matches it 12 months on. It’s not so much what pop music has been moving towards this century, as a distillation of all that has been good in non-UK pop this decade. It boasts the opaque lyricism of The Strokes, the glitz of The Killers and the brutal sheen of U2.
Yet for all the accusations of cynicism which will inevitably be levelled at it, ‘The Bravery’ is still an oddly affecting document. Just as Duran aspired to be the ‘band to dance to when the bomb drops’, so The Bravery famously formed as a reaction to the horrors that beset New York in the wake of 9/11. Their way of coping has been to plunder their record collections and make an album full of hooks, harmonies and effortless melodies which is as bold, silly and exciting as all the best pop. It’s a winning combination of bravado and (ground) zero substance that might just end up as the biggest album of the year.
Hey, like the song said, nothing’s unconditional.