Returning with a new album after a two-decade hiatus, the Vaselines are really testing the statute of limitations on comebacks. That’s not to say that the time off hasn’t been productive for the Vaselines, since revisionist history has been kind to them: The duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee may only have released a couple of EPs and a single album together in the late 1980s, but the sparse back catalog hasn’t kept them from being lionized over the years, thanks in no small part to Kurt Cobain’s evocative performances of their best songs. However, it’s tough to figure out what to make of the Vaselines’ long-time-coming second album, Sex with an X, and whether to treat it as only a novelty by a nostalgia act or as a work that should be appreciated on its own terms.
Whatever the expectations and preconceptions, you have to give the Vaselines credit for knowing better than to simply relive their youth, which would be impossible considering their charms derived from making raunchiness sound so sweet and innocent. It’s hard to expect them to replicate the same feel and mood of their endearing outsider punk-pop for a different era at a later stage in their lives, especially when the ramshackle approach they once took was probably as much by necessity as choice. If you can accept that premise, you’re in for a nice reintroduction to the Vaselines, at least for the first few tracks.
“Ruined” has some added oomph and bounce compared to before, but gives enough hints of tongue-in-cheek humor to show that Kelly and McKee still don’t take themselves too seriously. The first single, “Sex with an X”, has fun with its double meanings, as its opening lines—“Feels so good/It must be bad for me”—cover ground that the Vaselines are familiar with by finding pleasure in guilt and vice-versa, just updating its theme for more mature audiences.
Unfortunately, though, much of the album proves that it isn’t so easy to start over again after such a long layoff. So Kelly might have moved on from his lovable misfit persona, but what’s taken its place often sounds bitter on songs about hanging onto his libido and rehashing his disappointments. While “Overweight and Over You” might come off like one of the album’s catchier tracks at first, its double entendres have a pretty high ewww-factor, especially when Kelly sings, “Eat you up/Spit you out/Left a bad taste I can do without”. Same goes for “Mouth to Mouth”, which plays predictably on the all-too-obvious pun of the title. Offering a history lesson for those who think the ‘80s is the glorious past, the in-joking of “I Hate the ‘80s” works better, until its biting wit wears a little thin when Kelly gets cranky and curmudgeonly on a chorus (“You want the truth?/Well, this is it/I hate the ‘80s/Cause the ‘80s were shit”) that’s the equivalent of a get-off-my-lawn sign.
Kelly’s grumpy aged-man schtick only makes clear what’s most obviously missing from Sex with an X, which is more of a starring role for McKee, whose thin, girlish vocals were probably the stand-out element of the Vaselines’ twee appeal. Even though McKee is present on all of the songs, her role seems diminished somehow, whether it’s because the new material doesn’t suit her so well or because of the beefed-up pub-pop sound. So while it’s admirable that the Vaselines try a new approach by enlisting, among others, Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson to help fill out the band, the more standard rock format of the album tends to bury McKee’s contributions. Numbers like “Poison Pen” and “Mouth to Mouth” don’t play to McKee’s strengths and end up seeming a bit anonymous, since her distinctive delivery either loses its character or gets drowned out in the mix. Even when McKee does take the lead on “Such a Fool”, the self-incriminating lyrics don’t quite match the happy-go-lucky tone of her voice, which has, for instance, helped the Vaselines’ most memorable ditty, “Molly’s Lips”, stand the test of time.
Only on the mellow coda “Exit the Vaselines” does the interplay between McKee and Kelly really come together, thanks to more muted arrangements that highlight their natural camaraderie. If the closing number really is the Vaselines’ last act, it’s an appropriate one, recapturing the duo’s ineffable charm and immediacy, but doing so with a sense of weary warmth and tenderness that can only come with age. Better late than never, it’s one of the moments when the Vaselines strike the right chord on a somewhat uneven effort, as they show that holding on to fond memories isn’t necessarily at odds with making new ones.