[14 May 2009]
No one wants to see dreary words like “backpedaling”, “conciliatory”, or (worse yet) “stagnant” in a music review, but I’m willing to put down a few bucks that we’ll be seeing some permutation of them in anything written about Quicken the Heart over the next couple of weeks. (In my case, I got all three out of the way in the first sentence.) Yes, we’re dealing with another band that’s getting a bit too cozy as the dust drifting through this decade’s once heralded post-punk revival begins to settle; yes, Maxïmo Park have released the album (number three, as these things go) that’s going to tell us all whether we should or shouldn’t continue paying attention to this band; and yes, if you’re more into words like “adventurous”, “enthralling”, and are as fatigued as I am by trebly guitar rock that dares you to see how long you can write a review without using the word “angular”, you should probably steer clear of this one.
If you’re looking for comfort food though, eat up, because this album is about as safe, familiar, and palatable as things get. Trying to spot the differences between Maxïmo Park and the other myriad UK post-punkers out there is getting as difficult as trying to determine the individual personalities of the ants crawling around your kitchen floor (for their part, Maximo Park are the ants that use new wave synths slightly more often than the others), and if polite, intermittently danceable, tastefully distorted guitar rock is your thing, Quicken the Heart won’t disappoint. Problem is, neither will Maxïmo Park’s other two albums, and they have the benefit of covering this exact same ground first. While listening to Quicken the Heart, an album with a sound that’s more a fading echo of an era that’s already seen its considerable peaks than a defiant shout in the face of an uncertain future, it’s difficult to avoid the depressing notion that this band may well have used up all the good ideas on their excellent debut.
But you’ve got to give credit to the band for realizing where their strengths lie, even if those strengths look the exact same as they did when we first met them four years ago. Quicken the Heart is a slight retreat from the expansive, Gil Norton produced new wave of Our Earthly Pleasures, instead opting for the prickly aggression of Maxïmo Park’s earliest work. This album’s at its best when it forgets the “post” and goes for the “punk”: early standouts “Wraithlike” and “A Cloud of Mystery” (dwelling place of the album’s sharpest chorus hook), are the most substantial, concrete songs the band’s produced in some time, and even if Maxïmo Park end up back where they started, it’s a step up from the skeletal atmosphere for atmosphere’s sake of their last effort.
For much of the album, though, it’s clear we’re listening to a band who’s searching for a way forward without gaining much ground. The only development to be seen on Quicken the Heart comes when Maxïmo Park throw their two songwriting modes—synth-speckled airiness and barreling guitars—into the same song, hoping they don’t tear each other apart. Sometimes they actually manage an impressive harmony: “Calm” begins charmingly docile and ends in a teeth-baring charge, the journey from one polar opposite end to the other being so organic that it seems the furthest thing from forced. But then we also have songs like “Questing, Not Coasting”, whose soaring chorus (complete with strings that travel to the furthest, most embarrassing edges of sentimentality) springs up jarringly from moody keyboards, a chorus that doesn’t so much feel like it’s there because it’s supposed to be there but because the band couldn’t think of anywhere else to put it.
Quicken the Heart is a competent album—often even an intelligent one—but it’s also an album that’s running on ideas that started tasting funny a couple of years ago and are no doubt going to be contracting mold in a couple more. And there’s no disappointment more boring than one that begs a rotten food analogy. Maxïmo Park haven’t failed with this third LP, not at all—it’s just that they haven’t done much of anything.