Album number three is often a defining one, be that a crowning glory like Blur’s Parklife, a delightful reinvention such as The Beastie Boys Check Your Head, or prove the law of diminishing returns as Oasis did with Be Here Now. So when The Vaccines announced that their third, English Graffiti, was about the sense of disconnection in 2015, would age badly and its genre was stylised pop - turning their back on their previous allegiance to classism - they appeared to be headed for reinvention.
The first thing to say is that it sounds and looks fantastic. The sleeve is instantly iconic, mixing the gang posture of Blondie’s Parallel Lines with the colour scheme of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine. Recorded in the US, producers Dave Fridmann (Sleater-Kinney and The Flaming Lips) and Cole M.G.N. (Beck), bring an array of textures to the record. However, once you get past how wonderful it all sounds, what of the songs themselves?
Opener “Handsome” retains the spirit of earlier Vaccines songs in its melody but what’s immediately noticeable is that the guitars are largely absent, save for a snippet of surf plucking after the chorus. Justin Young’s voice is very high in the mix, flanked by bass and keyboards, but other than the change of emphasis in instrumentation it doesn’t offer anything you’ve not heard them attempt before (ditto the frenetic, “20 20” which is a bigger sounding “Wreckin' bar (Ra Ra Ra)”).
“Dream Lover” sounds vast, with an intro that undeniably channels the 80s and a melody that sounds like “I Want It All” by Queen of all people, and its verse, which is wisely relaxed, echoes the disconnection theme, “With a hollow embrace, let’s go back to your place”. Interestingly, for such an introspective song their recent performance on The Tonight Show was an exhibition of admirably rampant showmanship for they’re clearly shooting, which is the US.
When they keep it simple, they really hit the spot. “(All Afternoon) In Love” starts with a simple John Lennon-esque piano and the chord change in the chorus is simply lovely. But it does raise the question of their bid for contemporaneousness, because it’s essentially an early 70s soft rock ballad. The hook of “Want You So Bad” is a modern take on The Cure’s “Lullaby” and it’s literally lustrous, the song strips down the effects and injects some much needed warmth to the record, its light acoustic groove has that lilting craziness of The Beta Band, and the yearning of the vocal is genuinely affecting.
But the great songs here are let down by a few less focussed efforts. “Radio Bikini” is so busy it feels formless, the verse is sung with the bored snarl of The Jesus and Mary Chain over a musical caterwaul that makes it difficult to discern the lyrics.“Denial” is a jumble of different rhythms, mixing fuzz bass and handclaps. The chorus, which hits the anthemic notes, should have been wrung for all it’s worth, but instead it shares the songtime with a lumpen verse.
English Graffiti is a record full of ideas that has much to commend it, neither a triumphant or disastrous third album, just not a great one. When they get it right on the likes of “(All Afternoon) In Love”, they show how to be brilliantly intimate, yet ironically this record about modern disconnection is executed in a way that makes it difficult for the listener to get close to, or fall in love with, the majority of the songs here. But perhaps that was the whole point.