Nothing Kooky at All
The press kit for Junk of the Heart makes some pretty authoritative statements about the direction this LP is supposed to take the still-young British indie band. The record is described as a sort of “rebirth” for the group, a shifting of its influences that still manages to retain the signature sound that the group has developed over the past two records. That is a particularly interesting statement of intent: based on their past two outings, 2006’s Inside In/Inside Out and 2008’s Konk, there weren’t any clear indications that the Kooks needed to change. Those records, while no masterpieces, were well-performed pieces of indie rock, accented with touches of Britpop and post-punk. They were the sorts of record that didn’t define the year but spent plenty of time in rotation; the band’s skill at writing a memorable hook is near prodigious.
The press kit’s bold declarations of the band’s renewal are even more odd after a cursory listen to the material on Junk of the Heart. There is some experimentation here that the band hasn’t done before, but on the whole this is the same catchy, addictive style of music that the group excels at. The title track, which opens the record, serves as perhaps the most concise summation of the Kooks’ work: gleefully, frontman Luke Pritchard sings, “I want to make you happy / I want to make you feel alive.” Within the first few minutes of the record, the band has made its purpose clear: to make a happy, enjoyable record. Likewise, perhaps self-deprecatingly, Pritchard confesses, “The junk of the heart / Is junkin’ my mind.”
As the album’s title makes clear, there won’t be any deep explorations about the human condition. Though not entirely superficial, the album for the most part is in comfortable territory for the band. When the album’s tone does become introspective, like on the violin-backed interlude “Time Above the Earth”, the band isn’t making any earth-shattering observations. Truth is, though, it doesn’t really matter. That track, like the rest of the album, is so infectious that the Kooks’ skill at writing a great hook outweighs their lack of philosophical depth.
The Kooks are successful on this record mostly because, despite what has been said of the record, they are keeping to their wheelhouse. Tracks like “Eskimo Kiss” and “Runaway” capitalize on the band’s skill in writing a great acoustic guitar riff (“Sofa Song” from Inside In/Inside Out is a prime example). Even though the synth in “Runaway” sounds out of place (and oddly like Flight of the Conchords), the band is still up to its normal tricks. The album’s choruses are still driven by the band’s vocal harmony, which is at times reminiscent of the Beatles (the title track and “Rosie”) and at other times recalls contemporary British bands like the Kaiser Chiefs (“How’d You Like That” would have fit in well on Yours Truly, Angry Mob). Some may criticize the Kooks for not getting too far out of their comfort zone, but they are quite good at what they do and, as a result, the record’s playability drowns out any such complaints.
When the band does decide to try some new material, the results don’t amount to a genre shift. “Time Above the Earth” is the furthest removed from the band’s typical work, but at just under two minutes, it’s a very brief exploration, albeit a very pretty one. Lead single “Is It Me” and “Killing Me” both feature pad synth that add a touch of ‘80s balladry; the latter song in particular is one of the album’s strongest tracks. In the grand scheme of the record, these flourishes really are just nice additions to an already successful formula.
Perhaps the only substantive problem with Junk of the Heart is that, while it is yet another great display of talent, from the Kooks, it isn’t quite a step up from their past two outings. The band is for sure refining its sound, as well as adding a few new things here and there. But as good as the record is, it isn’t as refined as the band has been before.
Still, a record stands or falls by its own merits, and this one stands quite firmly. One day or another, we must all come to face the “junk of the heart”, but for now I’m quite content to just sit back and listen to some happy, worry-free music. Even when the band sings of problems, whether about the theological or of day-to-day relationships, its music is so addictive that one can’t help but feel elated. Junk of the Heart is everything the Kooks have been and continue to assert that they are, which makes for a rewarding listen.