The Vaccines’ ambitions for their third album are a little grander than the generic old chestnut of “we made this record for ourselves and if anybody else likes it, that’s a bonus”. Instead, as frontman Justin Young told NME a few months back, “we wanted to make something that sounds amazing next year and then terrible in 10 years!” Those words might read like a throwaway soundbite he’ll live to regret, but he actually makes a good point about how all albums, even the sacred cows, eventually show their age. People get hung up on creating something ‘timeless’, but music increasingly exists and is experienced in the moment, not in perpetuity. Why not make it for that and let the cards fall where they may?
That idea is slightly out of character for The Vaccines – timelessness always seemed to be what they were going for, after all – and the same could probably be said for ‘English Graffiti’ as a whole. The Vaccines of old had a clearly defined identity as garage rock re-revivalists fixated on the evergreen themes of teenage angst and inadequacy, their look and sound carefully calibrated to an over-romanticised past. This new iteration gleefully tear all that down: if lead single ‘Handsome’ (or what The Vaccines might sound like if they guest-starred on an episode of Scooby Doo) didn’t make it sufficiently clear, their third record is all over the map. This isn’t quite the same band you remember and it may not even be the band they ultimately become, but it’s the one that works best right now.
Even when ‘English Graffiti’ sounds like The Vaccines, it’s a kitschier, more colourful, hyper-stylised version. ’20/20’ feeds bits and pieces from The Jam, The Beach Boys and Teenage Fanclub through Dave Fridmann’s sonic wheelhouse, with The Flaming Lips producer given far greater license to colour outside the lines than either of his predecessors (Dan Grech on 2011 debut ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’ and Ethan Johns on 2012’s ‘Come Of Age’), who seemed content to let them plug in and play. He outdoes himself further on ‘Dream Lover’ by making Freddie Cowan’s five-note guitar riff sound like a lumbering Godzilla coming into view against a backdrop of red skies, wailing sirens and B-movie synths. The result is possibly the best – and certainly the biggest – thing they’ve ever recorded.
The importance of 2013’s ‘Melody Calling’ shouldn’t be understated here, because that EP now looks less of a stopgap and more of a signpost; you can hear the through-line between those tracks and songs like ‘Denial’ or ‘Want You So Bad’, which sound unburdened by the expectation, not necessarily of being an indie band, but of being a certain type of indie band. ‘(All Afternoon) In Love’ is a gorgeously floaty Lennon-esque piano ballad in the vein of ‘Real Love’ or ‘Grow Old With Me’, and ‘Minimal Affection’ sounds more like a collaboration between La Roux and Julian Casablancas than it does The Vaccines. Weirdest of all, if you quadruple-tracked the vocals on the chorus of ‘Give Me a Sign’, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine it being bellowed by One Direction. Young has said he wants ‘English Graffiti’ to be ‘genre-defining’, but ‘genre-encompassing’ is probably more accurate.
Will we look back on ‘English Graffiti’ in 10 years’ time and laugh at how gauche and quaintly of-its-time it seems? Who knows. But we’ll almost certainly look back on it as the moment where the question ‘What did you expect from The Vaccines?’ no longer had a straightforward answer.