wo years ago Athlete were a chirpy, cheeky, slightly off-kilter indie band indebted to Blur’s more fucking annoying moments, Gomez if they’d left school at 16, and that vaguely stupid “Tied To The 90s” tune by Travis (plus, arguably, Chas & Dave and a whole tradition of pre-war British Music Hall as refracted through that Beck single about being a loser). They scored a couple of hit singles, most memorably the bouncy “El Salvador,” which contained the refrain “Fly to El Salvador / I don’t know why / And I don’t know what for,” plus another one about how “Everybody wants to be part of the rock scene.” They were pretty rubbish, but in that competent, unashamedly poppy way that garners Mercury nominations seemingly by accident; a sunny disposition at odds with the zeitgeist, some vague nods towards using the studio and a computer as instruments, “song” “writing”… One Amazon user review of their debut has the headline “If Jamie Olvier Was A Band He'd Be......” (sic).
But now, two years on, Athlete are a very different proposition, almost. Lead single “Wires” is the kind of swaying, lighters-aloft anthem rock that saw “Run” explode Snow Patrol into the British pop music conscious so spectacularly a year ago, and that paradigm shift is recurrent throughout the album.
Tourist opens with the plangent piano of “Chances,” the slightly wistful, sideways-and-downwards momentum of the motif lasting 45 seconds or so before drums and strings and guitars and Nellie the bloody elephant crash in like a house falling on the Wicked Witch of the West, like an enormous musical road sign saying “be moved now.” To call it unsubtle would be an understatement, but neither does it have the guts to go far enough the other way, into the excessive, exhilarating melodrama of the likes of Rufus Wainwright or Jeff Buckley.
“Half Light” is a buzzing, energetic stomp let down by Joel Pott’s stilted and inexpressive voice and the debt it owes to Elbow’s superior “Fallen Angel.” Debts to other artists litter the album like crisp packets in a middle-class street; pointers to the fact that even the most elegant sheen can obscure a downmarket origin. Likewise the awful, misplaced female choir in “If I Found Out”—quite possibly singing “ooooh / soul”—but I hope not. “Street Map” turns the same trick as “Chances,” whispering in on hushed strings before a big, clumsy crash into incompetent bombast, which has no doubt has been described as “soaring” by people who think Queen overdo it.
To be fair, Tourist is reasonably well produced, if rather too much in the modern rock style of adding layers and layers and compressing them down so much that it slaps you in the face rather than caressing your ears. It doesn’t do the “mini sound worlds” thing anywhere near as well as Snow Patrol do, nor the awesome modern day Wall of Sound thing that Embrace perfected on Out of Nothing. Flourishes like the aquatic electronic squall in album closer “I Love” are refreshing indicators of modernity, but add nothing to the actual song; they’re signifiers of progression and momentum rather than indicators of real innovation. “Wires” does grow in stature with familiarity through radio exposure, and “Trading Air” could easily have the same kind of airplay success, but I can’t understand the mindset of anyone who’d want to play them over and over again when so many other, more exciting and intriguing things exist.
“Modern Mafia” is one of the only nods towards their jerky, poppy, sunny past, and is also the worst song about the mafia (either directly or tangentially) since Catatonia’s execrable “I Am The Mob”—which is to say that it’s pop music for people who fucking hate *pop* music.
So why the shift from chirpy pop to this grandiose balladeering? What made Athlete change? A cynic might point out that it’s three years since Coldplay’s last album, and that since then Keane and Snow Patrol have cleaned up commercially in this country, while other similarly anaemia-ridden anthem-makers like Thirteen Senses look set to follow their path to the upper reaches of the album charts. It’s quite possible that someone in A&R at EMI gently but firmly prodded Athlete in a direction they saw as successful, or even that Athlete went after a piece of the Sensitive Rock pie themselves.
The formula for Sensitive Rock has become deadeningly familiar over the last few years. Strings swell, choruses rise slowly and predictably, melodies repeat and repeat again and never progress or develop—it’s the total opposite of the Bloc Party approach of writing songs by sticking together the best bits of several different songs and playing them really fast. But the public gets what the public wants, and Athlete will ride the late-Winter, early-Spring charts for all they’re worth. Tourist is dull but worthy. Life is short; I have no time for dull but worthy.