Maximo Park - Our Earthly Pleasures
Now, along comes a new full-length by Maximo Park, “Our Earthly Pleasures”. I was quick to secure it from the usual sketchy online sources, since right now my money situation is bad enough that I can’t even entertain the thought of purchasing albums. I couldn’t be sure of the direction they would take, after all, and it was entirely possible that the new album would be devoted to the sort of less-than-perfect songcraft that provided the first album’s few lulls. If that were the case, I would have saved myself $13 by downloading it first.
Actually, though, quite the opposite is true. The album starts out incredibly strongly, with “Girls Who Play Guitars”, which has the same melodic-yet-aggressive energy that made the highlights from the first album so wonderfully catchy. It starts off with vocalist Paul Smith announcing, “You’ve been with me a year to the day. 365 days watching me decay.” From there, he goes through a litany of things “we used to talk about”, in a manner that suggests that this relationship is crumbling, and he knows it. By the end of the song, it’s obvious that he isn’t the only one who knew—the last verse begins “When you lie on my bed and you label me a friend, don’t you know how much that hurts?” Despite its exuberant musical tone, “Girls Who Play Guitars” reveals itself to be a song about getting dumped. It’s an incredibly strong song with which to begin the album, both musically and lyrically, but its lyrical tone seems like a foreboding sign where the rest of the album is concerned.
“Our Velocity” follows up, and is a bit less strong in the musical department, at least at first. This song goes heavy on the loud guitars and punk snarl, which is not where Maximo Park’s strengths lie. In fact, “Our Velocity” seems for its first two minutes to be following in the footsteps of the less engaging songs from “A Certain Trigger.” However, everything changes at that two-minute mark. Suddenly, organist Lukas Wooller’s instrument rises to the forefront of the mix, playing an ascending melodic hook. The guitars follow the organ line with an ascending rythmic line of their own, and the riff that this combination creates sends the entire song upward into a completely different dimension of catchiness. Overtop of all this, Smith sings in a pleading tone, “I’ve got no one to call in the middle of the night anymore. I’m just alone with these thoughts.” The emotional frisson created by the music and lyrics here takes Maximo Park in a direction they’ve not previously explored. Before, their melodic hooks were just that; catchy, poppy tunes, lying somewhere on the border between power pop and punk rock. This one section of “Our Velocity”, though, is something else, something more emotionally evocative. It’s new territory for the band, and as the album continues, their exploration of this territory continues apace.
The third song here, “Books From Boxes”, is the first song on the album that makes no use of distortion on the guitars. Instead, the band builds a melodic tapestry, creating one of their softest songs without losing any real emotional power. As Smith narrates a story of watching a lover pack belongings in preparation for leaving, the listener starts to realize what the overall theme of this album is. It’s true; this isn’t just a song or two about breakups thrown onto the beginning of a record. “Our Earthly Pleasures” is a breakup album, and the trauma and regret that infuses these songs lyrically also invades the music. On “Russian Literature”, there is some distorted guitar, but the increased volume is offset by Wooller’s choice to play a piano rather than his usual Undertones-like organ. His choice to do so gives the song some of the dramatic feel of piano-heavy songs by Bruce Springsteen, but the rest of the band pounds away at the choruses in a manner that retains Maximo Park’s usual punk feel. By the end of the song, which started out subdued, the music has risen to a fever pitch, and Paul Smith echoes this with his powerfully delivered cries of “I can’t live my life feeling nervous about tomorrow!” He seems to be singing from the position of someone still caught in that hellish limbo between the decision to end a relationship and the point at which it really sinks in that it’s over. These are the declarations of someone trying to rationalize the decision to surrender something that you want more than anything to hold onto.
“Karaoke Plays”, the fifth song on the album, is the third straight in which overt guitar distortion is eschewed, and it’s starting to seem by now that Maximo Park has moved towards a different method of creating powerful sounds in their music. As on “Russian Literature”, “Karaoke Plays” is a song that relies on a dramatic performance rather than crunching guitars, buzzing organ, or snarled vocals to make things feel heavy. Lukas Wooller compromises here between his usual loud organ and the acoustic piano of “Russian Literature”, playing a tinkling electric piano that sounds like a refugee from 70s lite-rock radio, but playing it in a manner that the keyboardist for The Carpenters would never have imagined. Guitarist Duncan Lloyd also scales back his attack, laying down one track of mostly undistorted chords (except on the choruses), and another of melodic, arpeggiated leads. The verses are subdued, and the pre-chorus builds up to the chorus with an ascending melodic riff. Paul Smith proves many times over the course of this album that he’s an incredibly talented lyricist, often capable of using simple phrases to powerful effect by placing them in the perfect musical context. This pre-chorus is one of the best examples of this, as he sings, “I waited up for you, but you didn’t come back home. I waited up for you. Couldn’t you come back home?” From there, the guitars kick in the distortion and the band drops to half-speed, in a manner reminiscent of American emo bands like Taking Back Sunday. They get the same effect from doing so as a lot of emo bands do, too, and the chorus of “Karaoke Plays” is one of the most powerful moments on the entire album.
The next song, “Your Urge”, starts out quietly, as a lot of the other songs on here have. It’s interesting, in fact, just how little Maximo Park have used their previous poppy punk formula on this record. On first listen, I found myself thinking that it was a much less heavy album, but that they weren’t losing any of their power by making that change. There’s just a lot more emotional drama in play here, which makes up for the loss in overtly punky musical gestures. Where “Your Urge” is concerned, it’s probably the quietest song on the first half of the album, at least for the first two and a half minutes. However, starting at the two minute mark, they depart from the verse-chorus structure the song tentatively took on towards the beginning. For a minute and a half, they play a repeating bridge riff over and over, hitting it slightly harder on each repetition. Overtop of this, Paul Smith talks of ill-considered actions undertaken in the attempt to forget an empty feeling within. “I empty out my pockets at the end of the night. Another scrawled first name, another sense of shame.” The song seems to be sung to one of a series of one-night stands, and as the climax of the repeated bridge is reached, Smith sings, “The pinkness near your iris reveals that you’ve been crying, but I don’t know what my crime is, behind my crumbling veneer.” The whole thing collapses at this point, and the band goes back to the quiet verses that began the song, repeating them a couple of times before trailing off completely.
If there are lulls on this album, they come during its second half. The increased sense of emotional drama surrounding Maximo Park’s music on “Our Earthly Pleasures” is probably much harder to maintain than their previous standard of catchy, melodic punk tunes. Unfortunately, this means that tunes that would have worked well in the era of “A Certain Trigger” have a higher standard to live up to now, and can seem like lulls where before, they would have seemed like highlights. This is definitely true of “The Unshockable”, which is a bit too repetitive to stand with “Certain Trigger” era tracks like “The Coast Is Always Changing”, but is only a hairbreadth away from measuring up to that song’s level. Following the steadily upping ante of the first six songs on this album, though, puts this song in a poor position, and it doesn’t quite measure up in that light.
Luckily, “By The Monument” quickly brings us back to the previously set standard. Musically, it continues the trend of undistorted guitars, and piano rather than organ, and lyrically, it’s nearly the best song on the album. Smith is still telling the story of living through the grey area before the breakup sets in. “I heard that you were seeing someone—not such an insignificant other,” he says. Meanwhile, all he’s left with are mementos: “In my wallet with your photobooth smile, and I, with my waterproof jacket. Posterity has hold of us now. Am I just waiting for the next chapter?” Or clinging to the tail ends of the last one? When he sings, “We found a hotel bar to sustain our last night in vain,” I find myself thinking of my own final attempt to feel the magic in an old relationship that had already ended. And who couldn’t relate to the final line in the song? “I’m just wasting my time, with you on my mind.”
“Nosebleed” is nearly “By The Monument”’s lyrical equivalent, and is its musical superior, boasting the best of the softer, more emotional melodic hooks on the entire album. The band doesn’t kick into a louder, distorted riff even on the chorus, focusing on melody, with Wooller once again playing piano. And Smith contributes his most smoothly sung vocal. The not-insignificant other shows up again in the lyrics here, and Smith still seems to be asking what exactly his former lover sees in this new guy. Over the ascending melody of the pre-chorus, he sings, “He changed his look for you, but you changed your life for him. Was the verdict worth the trial?” Then in the chorus, he laments, “Last night I dreamt we kissed on a bench in the evening.” His dejection over the letdown he received upon awakening is a feeling that any lonely person can relate to.
“A Fortnight’s Time”, like “The Unshockable”, features instrumentation that fits more closely with the songs on “A Certain Trigger” than it does with this album. However, unlike “The Unshockable”, “A Fortnight’s Time” does not end up feeling like a lull on this new album. This is due to the strength of its melodic chorus, on which Paul Smith again shows his gift for the well-placed simple phrase. “Would you like to go on a date with me?” he asks. He follows this with an apology of sorts; “I know it’s old-fashioned to say so.” The lyrics to this song aren’t nearly as weighty as those on most of the album, and don’t seem to have much of anything to do with the after-effects of a breakup. Instead, this tune is just what it sounds like—a catchy tune about asking a girl out. In both its fundamental simplicity and its hooky catchiness, it harks back to 60s pop in the same way that songs like “Graffiti” and “Now I’m All Over The Shop” did on the first album. A lot of the songs on “Our Earthly Pleasures” might be a bit hard to get used to for those who loved the first Maximo Park album unreservedly, but songs like this one and “Girls Who Play Guitars” should help to ease the transition.
“Sandblasted And Set Free” will also help with that transition, and perhaps even moreso than the songs here that sound more like “A Certain Trigger”. This is because this song, while having the instrumental feel of the quieter, more melodic songs, it’s constructed more like a song from the first album, with a strong melodic chorus that’s poppy rather than emotional and dramatic. It retains some feeling of drama just due to the quieter instrumentation, which centers around Wooller’s organ rather than Lloyd’s guitar, but the punky hook is still what brings you in. The same is true, in fact, of album closer “Parisian Skies”. However, the passion in Paul Smith’s voice on the choruses, as he declares, “I don’t think she knew how much I loved her”, is undeniable. The hook on this song is catchy, but it also manages to be emotional at the same time. This might actually indicate a new direction for Maximo Park to take on their third album. However, for now, the progress their sound has made with “Our Earthly Pleasures” is quite sufficient. As good as their first album was, this one is quite a bit better. I’ll be buying a copy as soon as I can possibly afford one.
It was hard deciding which songs to post from this album, as at least 9 of them are good enough to serve as representatives of the quality of the record as a whole. But here are two that I like a lot, and hopefully you'll like them enough to track down the entire record yourself.
Maximo Park - Karaoke Plays
Maximo Park - A Fortnight's Time