Quite why the Stereophonics chose to call their retrospective collection Decade in the Sun is something of a mystery. It can hardly be a literal biographical reference—the band hail from Cwamaman, Wales—nor a musical one, since they might more appropriately soundtrack a rain-drenched pedestrianised city centre than any sun-kissed, sandy idyll. Perhaps it refers to the predicted lifespan of the ubiquitous airplay of “Have a Nice Day”, easily the trio’s sunniest four minutes to date. Regardless, the title’s first word serves as a reminder that the band’s status as rather insipid but wholly inoffensive mainstream rockers is now, after six studio albums, approaching elder statesman territory.
It’s a role for which the trio have really been model candidates since record number three, 2001’s Just Enough Education to Perform, which largely dispensed with its two predecessors’ brisk crunchiness in favour of a plod that his persisted—barring requisite attempts at rediscovering the rawk—ever since. And while this career trajectory hardly set pulses keenly throbbing, it does provide some opposition to the old critical chestnut regarding the avaricious redundancy of singles collections in general. Because you imagine the Stereophonics, perhaps more than any other arena-packing British giants, have a lost generation of fans out there whose hairs didn’t grey as rapidly as Kelly Jones & Co’s did after album number two. Really, Decade in the Sun could prove just as much a “where are they now?” recap as a path-tracing trip down memory lane.
Decade in the Sun
Best of Stereophonics
(Vox Populi Records)
US: 18 Nov 2008
UK: 10 Nov 2008
Except, there’s problems with both sides of that equation. Because ‘Phonics’s newer stuff is really pretty mediocre alongside the comparatively green shoots of their youth, some of which haven’t aged all that well themselves. Of the two token newies here, “You’re My Star” fares worst, lobbing together a half-baked, gratuitously rhyming vocal (“You’re a new day / Just like Tuesday”) and a feeble little riff, attempting the same sort of shimmering nonchalance that “Dakota” actually pulls off pretty capably, but which here is just plainly tired. “My Own Worst Enemy” has more punch, and a better chorus at that, even if it isn’t quite as sophisticated as it thinks it is.
But—slightly depressingly—the highlights here are almost universally culled from the band’s first two albums, most reliably breakthrough Performance and Cocktails. There’s the intoxicatingly nuanced riff of “Just Looking”; the nostalgic wistfulness of “Local Boy in a Photograph”; the uncharacteristically energetic “Bartender and the Thief”. Ye olde fan favourite “More Life in a Tramp’s Vest” is all the better for its youthful facetiousness, as long as you can see past the irony. What followed in the ‘Phonics career is an onslaught of unsmiling dreariness, dotted with the occasional resurgent hit, in a way that invites comparisons with Oasis. Put the just-shy-of-anthemic “Traffic” beside the droning tantrum of “Mr. Writer”, or the buoyant “Pick a Part That’s New” next to the unconvincing, relentless positivity of “Have a Nice Day”, and there’s really no battle for preference. No surprise that those first two albums get more than their representative share of the twenty cuts here. It’s scarcely an accident, too, that Decade isn’t compiled chronologically; that way it would have seemed like the slow, lumbering death of a wounded animal.
Essentially, Decade in the Sun is epitomised by its own insert, which features chronologically ordered band line-up shots beside their respective album sleeves. Just as the ‘Phonics have gone from three goofy but affable-looking lads circa Word Gets Around to four preened, Brylcreemed and leather-clad Italian footballers come last year’s Pull the Pin, their music has mutated from the inoffensively agreeable to the dourly self-important. To abridge: the band lost their sense of humour around 2001. And so what aims to be an apt and appreciative rundown of what they’ve achieved in the course of their career ends up an ominous reminder that the Stereophonics have released an album every two years since their conception, and show no sign of relenting—though every sign of slowing down—for a good while yet.