When The Vines emerged in 2002 with the astounding Highly Evolved, they were described as saviours of rock music – no pressure then. In singer Craig Nicholls they possessed what seemed to be arguably the outstanding talent of his generation, a singularly gifted songwriter who blended his love of Nirvana and The Beatles with a thrilling confidence. But their career hasn’t been the smoothest of rides since. Nicholls’ fractious relationship with both the press and bandmates alike has been a constant subtext, and he’s now the last remaining original member of the group. However, despite his recalcitrance, rather like Morrissey his devotion to music makes one hope that each new record will be the return to form his talent merits. But on the evidence of their sixth album Wicked Nature, The Vines are at a crossroads.
Wicked Nature was funded via PledgeMusic and features Nicholls on production duties for the first time. It sees them take on the potentially poisoned chalice that is the double album, which can be a triumph of productivity or a disaster in self-indulgence. Whilst Wicked Nature is neither of these and there are moments of undoubted brilliance, as a body of work it lacks consistency. It’s a brave attempt at rebirth, productivity and relevance, but perhaps they should have released two albums in quick succession, as the Manic Street Preachers did this recently, instead of a double, to really show that their muse has returned.
“Metal Zone” opens the record with a droned vocal and low-slung blues riff which quickly moves into a metallic blitzkrieg, but it manages to stay out of the EMOzone thanks to Nicholls terrific harmonies. It segues seamlessly into “Ladybug” which sounds like an amazingly stoned Weezer. But then it gets a little overwhelming, chiefly because of the twenty two songs here only four get past the magical three minute mark. Whilst some of the shorter songs deliver punk-pop brilliantly - “Out Of The Loop” breezes by in 84 seconds and sounds as cocksure as their breakthrough “Get Free” - other attempts misfire, “Love Is Gone” is a two riff song in search of a finished idea but doesn’t quite get there.
“Venus Fly Trap” is the first time they take their foot off the gas, and it’s a delight, with a simple viola accompaniment and a beautifully defiant refrain “Why did you need her so bad?/To lose control?/Life is all I need and I’ll go on trying…” “Killin The Planet”, is a dead ringer for The Beatles’ “Come Together” and fittingly breaks into a “Dear Prudence” chorus, but rather than being a pastiche it’s a triumph. Rather like the swoonsome “Homesick” from Highly Evolved, it’s a perfect example of how Nicholls wears his influences on his sleeve, but unmistakably walks his own path.
The centerpiece here is the gorgeously melancholic “Truth”. The melody wouldn’t be out of place on a Kinks record, and the “Sha-la-la-la-la’s” fit the 60s flower child atmosphere to a tee. As with the title track of Winning Days, it has both a nostalgic sadness and optimism at its heart (“Count on me to let you down without a word of warning… I believe that we will meet again”).
A line on “Darkest Shadow” sums up the albums narrative - “Now the time has come for me to start again”. Wicked Nature is certainly the start of a renaissance, if not quite the all-conquering return it could have been. The recurring lyrical motif is of Nicholls exorcising the demons of his past. Hopefully they’re now out of his system and the next record will see him leave the punk-pop behind and focus on his mastery of psychedelic torch songs, because when The Vines get it right here, they sound timeless.