Road To Rouen
az Coombes has had an inferiority complex ever since “Alright” was an enormous pop hit ten years ago; he’s spent the intervening decade trying to convince critics and fans alike that Supergrass aren’t the band we think they are, that there’s more to them than cheesy, Monkees-esque bubblegum Britpop. Ever since we first saw them smiling cheeky smiles and peddling Choppers, harmonising like 60s poppers, riffing like 70s punkers and winking like the knowing 90s kids they actually were, Gaz, Mickey and Danny (as well as keyboardist Robert, always a live fixture and added as an “official” full member a few years back) have been fighting against the limitations of their reputation, amping up the “maturity” quotient on each subsequent album and, each time, seeing their initially huge popularity wane slightly. And now, ten years on from their debut, a “best of” compilation in the bag, and here we are. Where are we?
The title of Road To Rouen is a bad pun which, when coupled with the lyrics of the opening song (suite) and the overarching aesthetic and mood of this album, is revealed as a statement of discontent – this album is Supergrass’ wilful commercial suicide, their “experimental” venture into unknown territories wherein the last vestiges of their exuberant youth are exorcised in favour of accomplished maturity. They aren’t the band they used to be. Of course the very fact that people like me are still going on about “Alright” in reviews of their fifth album is some kind of justification for them being so keen to throw out their own past. But fuck it – that particular tune is a classic and the album that spawned it is one of the finest blasts of guitar pop energy you’ll ever hear – it came out on the day of my 16th birthday and I loved it.
For Road To Rouen Supergrass decamped to France (obviously), just four guys in a band with an engineer to help them, and set about stripping downwards and backwards, playing music for themselves, making the kind of record they’ve wanted to make for years, with no interference and no expectations. So what’s the end result like? Well, it’s a lot like late-period Beatles for a start; the deployment of strings and horns, the clever tempo shifts and movement between musical themes on “Tales Of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)”, all smack of Abbey Road, as the song develops from an orchestral, cinematic opening through a jazzy interlude before settling briefly on being a bluesy country strum, lyrically disenchanted with the music industry and the band’s own past. One has to wonder why though, in 2005, a band eager to make a statement of maturity, to further the limits of what they’re perceived as being, chooses to sound like The Beatles.
My first impression of Road To Rouen was that they’d made a record in order to show off how well they could play the ukulele and zither, and indulgent, largely acoustic set designed to demonstrate their musicianly skills, and that they’d forgotten to write any bloody tunes for it because they were too busy faffing around getting the same make of drum as Sly & The Family Stone used. In truth, Supergrass have too much pop nous to make an album entirely lacking in tunes, and in “St Petersberg”, “Roxy” and “Low C” they have three songs as good as anything they’ve ever written, except that the last decade has bled the band dry of energy and verve meaning that where once these songs would have been pop classics, now they’re tastefully tuneful AOR. That’s what getting old does, kids. For all the talk of radical change, it sounds like a Supergrass record, albeit slower. As evolutions and transformations go it has nothing on previous big-hitting EMI / Parlophone artists making wilfully obtuse about-turns (namely Talk Talk and Radiohead), and the danger of making this tired, half-statement is that Supergrass will find themselves lost in the void; neither attracting critical praise enough to secure some kind of legendary cult status (Spirit Of Eden), or doing something perceived as essential enough to ensure commercial success (Kid A)
Because nine tracks and 35 minutes doesn’t seem like a proper revolution of the head; it seems like a tired attempt at defiant evolution, like they ran out of energy and ideas halfway through reinventing themselves and said “that’ll do for now”, especially when one track is the 90-second cocktail lounge instrumental “Coffee In The Pot”. It’s not that we want Supergrass to say the same (casual fans might, but casualisation kills, and presumably the hardcore of any band’s fans want to see their favourite group develop and evolve into exciting new shapes), it’s just that this change seems like too little, too late. Road To Rouen isn’t likely to delight hardcore fans or appease bypassers, and I doubt it can win a big enough new audience to make up for that. In a stroke of delicious irony, their transformative record is merely alright.