❉ Neither heavy, nor pop, nor modern, nor retrospective, Maxïmo Park remain split across time and genre.
Less is more, more or less; most of the time. Loss informs bands of a certain notoriety in myriad ways. Joy Division cast aside the shackles of dread to step into the light, losing none of their weight or significance on the way. Manic Street Preachers doubled down on their articles of faith, casting daggers within and without, picking up hooks and hits along the way. Nirvana became the Foo Fighters, The La’s became Cast and then there are the rest, the other boys and girls that had shed a number but still had something to add. It’s at this point that questions get asked of what remains.
‘How do you lockdown AND reach out? How do you manage nurture and nature? How do you combine age with rage?’ Asks the bio that accompanies the release of Maxïmo Park’s seventh studio album Nature Always Wins, their first collection of new material since 2017’s Risk to Exist, and their first as a sort of three-piece, sort of not.
Lead singer Paul Smith delivered his answer on the first line of the first song of the first album the band ever released. ‘A new direction, a new dawn, consider this my informal complaint…don’t waste your life, just go outside’ went the opening to Signal and Sign. This could be a call to arms to those desperately seeking the exotica of the outside, craving for a return to whatever normal might have been long ago. Distant words sung to a population that needs to hear it now. Prescient words are born of wisdom or accident, and occasionally both. However arrived at, these are sentiments that Maxïmo Park had to confront in the build up to writing their new release by way of a departing founder member in keyboardist Lukas Wooller, who binned off these putrid green hills for an Australian retreat into something akin to early retirement.
At a crossroads, the band had to make a decision. To expand their ranks, or to strip themselves down and fill the chasm with something…else. The early socio-empathetic material arguably now had a more urgent context than upon release. A contemporary backdrop of declining social values, of division and poverty, of political unrest and increasingly polarised (extremist) views permits – URGES – the themes already explored by the band to be expanded upon, to be placed front and centre. This, alongside the usual pangs of social guilt and enforced personal responsibility found in parenthood formed Smith’s thinking ahead of their next steps.
Instead of recruiting another keyboard player, they instead sourced an invisible fourth member in Atlanta based producer, Ben Allen. Having had great success working with the likes of Gnarls Barkley, it was clear that the band were after a more groove-laden, accessible and commercial soundtrack to their mid-life, third act, pop-angst. Their focus centres on relevant cultural touchpoints, such as insomnia, procreation and empty shopping malls instead of the wider issues in the hope that heart strings will be twanged alongside six steel ones. Do they succeed?
Seconds into album opener, Partly Of My Making, their thicker loping sound gropes for profundity. Neither heavy, nor pop, nor modern, nor retrospective, they remain split across time and genre. There is a move from spiky pop into a darker territory, with more room to breath. The ambition develops further down the playlist.
Emotional centrepiece Baby Sleep lays out its stall: ‘It may appal you to know that the mall is the only place I go, so much choice and restriction you don’t know what I been missing…my baby only sleeps when she wants to’. Smith intends to embellish on the minutea of the humdrum, with vague imagery of Britain’s latter stage capitalism and the chasm of meaning it’s spread over every town highlighted by the drone like quality of chronic new-parent insomnia. This is a very nice pop song and the album’s stand out turn, but instead of hitting the heart, the arrow sticks in the arm. Songs about parenthood don’t need to be glib or knowing, they can be enormously moving without compromising their edge, like Athlete’s heartbreaking Wires. Searching for meaning can sometimes mean looking past it.
Smith himself reveals this process: ‘When you give birth to anything, whether it’s a child or an album, you betray who you are in that process’, and this slight missing of the mark is the accidental hallmark of their career – very nearly getting it just right, but your foot’s tapping, so no harm done.
Why Must A Building Burn is the band’s digestion of Lukas Wooller’s departure. All swirling harmonies and military drum rolls, it takes off with a light touch, achieving the effect that Baby Sleep perhaps meant to. ‘Do you need a flag, to know who are? Do you get intentionally left behind?’ Suggests a slightly less forgiving tone than the self-penned bio suggests toward the escapee, Wooller. Maxïmo Park have lost none of their anthemic designs and capability, and this is a piece of music designed to bring cathartic festival moments of release for audience – assuming they’ve spotted the empty space where Wooller’s keyboard used to stand – and band alike.
The album is littered with nice moments; All Of Me is full of hooky synths and skip beat drum fills and is an obvious single: ‘This song is where you belong, this is all of me’ sings Smith, as we invade his private space and peer into what he sees in the mirror. Paul’s certainly putting himself on the line, doing his utmost to leave no stone unturned. ‘Watching videos of you, little actor in your room’, goes Versions of You, another ode to parenthood that skips along, touching crucial, private moments as father bonds with baby. Feelings I’m Supposed To Feel acts as antidote to syrupy private moments made public, moments that can inherently change the individual but are rendered almost meaningless by their regularity in occurrence, suggesting that all that went before it was just the search, not the destination.
You know what you’re going to get from Maxïmo Park – anthemic pop, observed through a North Easterly filter and rubber soled shoes. And rubber soul is exactly what is delivered here.
I’ll leave the final words to Paul Smith. ‘We’re a pop band. They’re songs you can understand, yes, influenced by lots of different genres, but what it comes down to is: we still want every song to be hooky, melodic, memorable – to be loved. It’s not a vanity project.’
❉ Maxïmo Park: ‘Nature Always Wins’ (Prolifica Inc) released 26 February 2021.
❉ A regular contributor to Far Out Magazine, We Are Cult, The View magazine, Velvet magazine, the Teatles Book and more, Jamie Osborne writes a variety of fiction, non-fiction, comedy and features. Jamie loves to write about music, the Beatles, ’50s & ’60s culture and art, TV, film, comedy and football. You can find some examples on his blog page.