Maximo Park haven’t been Maximo Park for quite some time, if that makes any sense. 2005′s A Certain Trigger was a brilliant debut, a record made up of cool, clean, punk-influenced power-pop that managed to breathe oxygen into the flickering flame that was New Wave Revival. The songs on A Certain Trigger were intimate, exciting, and romantic, but that was a long time ago; it was also the last time that the band were worth listening to. After two underwhelming follow-ups (2007′s Our Earthly Pleasures and 2009′s Quicken the Heart) Maximo Park have returned with The National Health, their fourth full-length release. Adopting a more social and political standpoint and grounding themselves in strong songwriting, the album is not as dazzling as their debut, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Maybe it’s not a concept album, but it definitely seems like The National Health is all about the current climate of England, the band’s homeland (and I’m not talking about weather). Of course, there are plenty of personal touches as well. On opening track “When I was Wild,” singer Paul Smith first croons, “Do I really need to give an introduction?” before nostalgically hearkening back to a time when he lived “in a shadow world,” oblivious to the harsher realities of the world. It’s short, and sort of sweet, but it’s definitely somber. Luckily, Maximo Park know that they are best when they are at their fastest, so the piano ballad quickly morphs right into “The National Health.” In this case, the title track is the album’s best track, as it perfectly sums up the band’s new political agenda. “England is sick and I’m a casualty… I feel we’re heading for a ca-ca-catastrophe,” Smith sings at a manic, freeway speed pace.
There’s a long tradition of English bands singing of their love/hate relationship with the country, and western society in general: from the Sex Pistols and the Clash to the Libertines and Bloc Party, just to name a few. Ironically the Kinks, who are one of those quintessential English bands, also released a song called “National Health.” It seems as if, on their own “National Health,” Maximo Park are trying to leave the fad-band label behind and join the ranks of those aforementioned groups. Maximo Park are getting there, for sure, but they could definitely get there a lot faster, if only the rest of The National Health weren’t so slow.
“The Undercurrents” and “Write This Down” are bright spots, but songs like the dark, synth-peppered “Banlieue” feel ill-fitting on the band. Overall, the album has a slight lack of energy– something you could never before say about Maximo Park. Luckily, Paul Smith and his signature deep and versatile voice still make for one capable frontman, but it’s unfortunate that the band have upgraded their songwriting at the expense of their fantastic sense of speed. If “write what you know” is the key to success for any writer, then “stick with what works” is what I would say to Maximo Park. Consider The National Health an upgrade– Maximo Park feel like Maximo Park again– but I’d still like a bit less risk-taking and a bit more romance.
2.5 / 5 bars