First, some context. Back in 2005, Hoylake hearties The Coral were all at sea. It was all there in their third album, ‘The Invisible Invasion’. A spooked, rickety work conceived as an attempt to “bring back Jim Morrison in a pirate ship”, it was an album populated by roaming lepers and cripples, channelling the nightmarish visions of ’tache-twiddling master surrealist Salvador Dali, and bearing the mark of producers Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow, the dark presence behind long-absent UK gloom-meisters Portishead. Like giving birth to a dancing skeleton, it wasn’t easy. But this wasn’t a cynical attempt to make an album that sat in the all-time classics list; this was the sound of a band battling demons, but all the while trying to find new frontiers to explore.
The Coral’s new album, by contrast, was mostly recorded – by personal invitation, no less – at Noel Gallagher’s luxury personal studio, Wheeler End in Buckinghamshire. There can be little denying that bands wearing the Mark Of Gallagher (Ocean Colour Scene, The Stands, Proud Mary, etc) have typically been the sort to rest on some other band’s laurels that have been laying around since the ’60s. It wouldn’t be inconceivable that The Coral would take this path – for all their inventiveness, their primary wells of inspiration have always been of a vintage: Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, the parp of mariachi and the scrape of skiffle. But it would be a defeat for The Coral to admit the past really did do it better than the present.
The band pose on the cover of ‘Roots & Echoes’ in stark monochrome, guitars wielded like Tommy guns. But opening blues-rock stomper ‘Who’s Gonna Find Me’, for all its pounding Motown backbeat and wailing harmonica, sounds oddly sober: “I’m underneath the spell once again”, sings James Skelly, but there’s no bad ju-ju here. No, sadly, if this is magic, it’s of the David Copperfield variety – he made a building disappear, but he still can’t make you give a shit.
A wobbly start, but luckily The Coral are just finding their sea legs. ‘Remember Me’ is a tale of romantic yearning, but like the best cut-throat sea shanties, it gradually ramps up the dramatic tension to peak on a high note of tragedy. “I’m a prisoner, but she’s so fancy free/Will she remember me?” blubs Skelly, but no – she moves away, word filters back she’s got a ring on her finger, and one final chorus threatens to spill its guts with a scream of choked guitar and a volley of drums. And next, there’s perhaps The Coral’s plain loveliest song to date. If old soul dude Bill Withers was a white kid from the Wirral, he might write a song as straightforward, heartfelt, and plain beautiful as ‘Put The Sun Back’. A tale of love derailed by life’s twists and turns, it puts a lump in your throat through its sheer simplicity.
As you get deeper into ‘Roots…’, it becomes clear that things have changed for The Coral. The band attribute it to chilling out, and they don’t mean with an ounce of skunk; this is the sound of a cleaner, happier Coral, and notably, guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, who gave up touring a couple of years back, has returned to the fold. Whether a matured Coral is a good thing, however, is a moot point. Where once these songs came populated by cutlass-waving pirates, desert-roaming madmen, and suicidal office drones who roamed these narratives like the supporting cast of some hallucinogenic pantomime, much here hinges on some more familiar topics. Like, love and relationships. NME must point out that this is not entirely a bad thing: on the contrary, we’d cheerfully trade an identikit sea-shanty number for something as plain unusual as ‘Fireflies’, a misty lament of kaleidoscopic guitars, jazzy cymbal splashes and mariachi drum salutes that come on like Love covering the theme tune to Tales Of The Unexpected. But taken as a whole, you can’t help but feel ‘Roots & Echoes’ lacks some of the mystique that made each preceding Coral album feel like an unearthed chest that needed to be unlocked. ‘Not So Lonely’ patters along on the sort of delicate acoustic guitar and tapped bossanova that Devendra Banhart would use as a springboard into a tale about fairies or the fauna of Outer Mongolia – here it’s just the backdrop for missing your girl. ‘She’s Got A Reason’, meanwhile, never really gets started until Skelly stops singing, Nick Power’s gut-trembling organ kicks in, and the band get their jam on. Things, apparently, weren’t going according to plan with the tracks they recorded with producer Ian Broudie in Liverpool – but one of the two that make it to the record, ‘Music At Night’, grooves along with some of the adventure that most of this album seems to lack.
Once, The Coral felt like the one band capable of grasping the mantle left by Lee Mavers, frontman of The La’s – the mop-top mystic, last seen holding court in his shrine-like rehearsal room, who claimed the light of inspiration sprung from the Mersey, and that he didn’t write songs, but “caught them, in a net”. Here, though, it sounds like The Coral have decided to cut the gobbledegook, push the skeletons back in the closet and become the classic band they’ve sometimes promised to be.
Occasionally, they achieve it. But the pay-off is that they’ve sealed off some of their haywire inspiration. Perhaps they’re happier this way. But when James Skelly sings “I am a stranger in this life/Haunted by yesterday’s desires” on ‘In The Rain’, you can’t totally shake the feeling this is a band chasing a future they may never find.