Album review by Philip Lickley
Maxïmo Park – The National Health
Buy: The National Health
Geordie rockers Maxïmo Park – don’t forget the umlaut! – return with their fourth album entitled The National Health, daubed in a Medieval style stained glass picture of, what I assume to be, is a dove.
As a big fan of the indie rockers, how does their fourth album stand up compared to their previous trio of LPs? Well it’s not a massive departure from their familiar sound which will please the fans, sitting somewhere between the pop-indie-hooks of Our Earthly Pleasures and the more sit-down-and-take-it-all-in-and-work-for-it-hooks of Quicken The Heart. Though the second album still remains the long player they have to beat, The National Health will please the fan base with its healthy collection of tracks on an album coming in at just over forty minutes.
Opener ‘When I Was Wild’ is a song contrary to the bright fuchsia of the album cover. A gloomy, downbeat and short living string-led ballad – it comes in at just one minute – that sets the sombre tone for a mostly less bombastic album than expected, though the downbeat nature is contradicted then again by the sudden burst in of the heavy guitars of the second, and titular track, ‘The National Health’ which quickly attempts to shatter your ear drums. With tinkling piano keys separating the verses, it’s like a rockier ‘Our Velocity’ with throbbing guitars and brash drums with Paul Smith’s speedy vocals complimenting both. The track gives no apologies for its speed and is a great kick-up early on for the album with the grinding guitar element properly hitting in at 2:30 with some catchy rhyming and an addictive balls-to-the-wall feeling making it a top three minutes.
Lead single ‘Hips and Lips’ follows, a track that has definitely grown on me after my initial lack of enthusiasm for it on its single release. I still feel it’s not the most immediate or strongest of their first album cuts but the simple chorus sticks with you especially as it gets built on through the song. It’s a dark, brooding number and continues from where track two left off, even if the chorus lyrics keep reminding me of Mick Jagger. It’s a song that certainly gets better after multiple listens and its appeal starts to show if given time.
‘The Undercurrents’ continues the heavily poetic lyrics that is Paul Smith’s trademark, mixing in nicely with the style of the preceding albums. It’s not the strongest track on the album but one that, like many on the release, grows with each listen so don’t expect an immediate love for a lot on here. Smith does find himself getting lost in the sonic mish-mash of the music near the end but with shades of ‘Tanned’ in it and an enjoyable ethereal opening there’s much to enjoy here.
My favourite track on the album comes next. ‘Write This Down’ is surely a contender for the next single thanks to its poppy synths and Kaiser Chiefs sounding chorus that is one of the strongest I’ve heard from them even if it doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle that you expect, though when the ‘assemble it all’ element gets added to it as the track progresses it does get even better and hits the heights expected from the band.
Lacking any distinct hooks ‘Reluctant Love’ is not as good as the previous tracks but makes up for it with some interesting guitar riffs. ‘Until the Earth Would Open’ is a perkier, more uplifting track that has a jaunty, fun chorus that lifts the track and album up a level.
‘Banlieue’ mixes things up a little with a bassy vocal opening and verses and offers something a little different but otherwise is a middle-of-the-road track.
‘This Is What Becomes of the Broken Hearted’ is a piano-led track in the style of Coldplay with a building opening and well composed musical style with a titular nod to the classic Righteous Brothers song. A firm track on the album thanks to its piano riff and mix with the vocals.
‘Wolf Among Men’ is a faster paced track with pop-indie undertones and though the verses underwhelm the chorus is worth a listen. Follower ‘Take Me Home’, built around a repetitive chorus pleading its title, is another standard track but the lyrics are once more well-written and an insight into the personal side of the lyricist.
‘Unfamiliar Places’ is a gloomier, slower track with some well placed choral effects and oohs and becomes a rather sombre near-conclusion to the piece. Musically interesting but a little too downbeat for my tastes, but at least closer ‘Waves of Fear’ is a happier ending with a perky style and an OK close to the album.
For those who managed to grab the deluxe edition, with a signed outer CD case, you can also hear four of the tracks in acoustic stripped-back form on a bonus disc which is well worth a listen to to hear some alternative takes, and some are arguably better than their album counterparts with ‘Hips and Lips’ allowing you to appreciate the lyrics more with fewer musical distractions.
The National Health isn’t a big departure for the band so will please the fans with a smattering of standout tracks. It’s not an immediate listen and takes a few spins to settle in but tracks like ‘Write This Down’ and the title song help bridge that gap. It’s still not improved on their second album in my eyes which continues to remain the best of their career but it’s a worthy addition to their canon and I look forward to hearing it some more times to fully appreciate Paul Smith’s lyrics and the bands keen eye for musical nuances around them.