‘Combat Sports’ has been a battle for The Vaccines: against internal strife – drummer Pete Robertson has departed since 2015’s third album ‘English Graffiti’ and Justin Young and guitarist Freddie Cowan were punching each other’s faces in on the last day of recording; against “health and lifestyle issues” (the new ‘nervous exhaustion’?) because, y’know, too much squash and life drawing can really play havoc with a band; but most of all, against irrelevance.
Signs had been emerging since their immense 2011 debut ‘What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?’ – an energised exercise in neo-nostalgia that felt like being kicked in the groin by Frankie Valli – that The Vaccines were succumbing to the Bastille Virus, an insidious infection of guitar music by flagrant mainstream pop that, in the very worst cases, makes facile boybands believe they’re the new fucking Strokes. In zombie-movie terms, their smoother, synthier moments were like the part where a heroic resistance leader uncovers a festering bite mark and starts spitting blood.
While rock scientists search for a cure, the first step to recovery is realising you have a problem. Deciding to become “a guitar band again”, and rejuvenated by the arrival of two wide-eyed new members – keyboardist Tim Lanham and drummer Yoann Intonti – The Vaccines fought back. The result is a fourth album both back-to-basics in a Ramone-next-door sort of way, but with renewed purpose and attitude, and eyeing new paths of punk-rock progress.
So opener ‘Put It On A T-Shirt’ teases its ’50s teen-idol quiff into place with just as much reverence for rock’n’roll’s pioneers as ‘Wetsuit’ or ‘Blow It Up’, but its lip-curl is far more pronounced; Young snaps barbed non-sequiturs at a heartless partner and Cowan’s guitar bursts out of the chorus like a Fender scorned. ‘Surfing In The Sky’ sounds like The Beach Boys strapped to the bonnet of a monster truck and driven at speed the wrong way around a Nascar track. ‘Nightclub’, about falling in love with a hedonistic sociopath, resembles Slaves kicking Kaiser Chiefs down several flights of stairs. Even the chorus or two that wouldn’t be out of place on the last Wombats album – irrepressible first single ‘I Can’t Quit’ and the Strokesian double of ‘Something To Lose’ and ‘Out On The Street’ – sound fresh rather than formulaic. The mental, social and emotional combat going on in Young’s lyrics seeps into the sound; The Vaccines return battle-scarred but buoyant.
It’s unfortunate that they still suffer under the widespread indie-rock delusion than any ‘new direction’ has to mean bunging in a bit of ’80s AOR synthrock, like the world’s still pining for Flashdance. ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band’ lets the side down with its flagrant Nik Kershaw fripperies, but ‘Maybe (Luck Of The Draw)’ at least throws hints of The Lightning Seeds, New Order and Electronic into the mix. Their stylistic dabblings fare far better when dipping into pier-end music-hall vibes on slacker’s anthem ‘Take It Easy’, or building a driving epic around a spaghetti-western organ hook on ‘Rolling Stones’. Or, in the album’s real eye-opener, when Young comes on like a husky, horny lounge crooner in the Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen or Jeff Buckley mould for ‘Young American’, purring sultry lines like “Suffocate me in between your thighs” that might well have fallen off the back of the latest Morrissey album. For a band out to re-plough and redecorate their original rut, there’s real imagination here; The Vaccines return to the front-line of popular culture ready, once more, to lead the charge. A dog of the new-rock war, let slip.