You wouldn’t think Coral frontman James Skelly would be a lonely guy: He’s got six bandmates at his side and they’ve been peppering the UK charts with offbeat, psychedelic singles for the past four years. Still, The Invisible Invasion, the band’s fourth album, finds Skelly crafting clever sketches of lonely and abandoned folks. Maybe’s it’s lonely being the only British septet on the scene these days. Ha.
With a darker theme comes a darker sound. The Coral’s 2002 self-titled debut was brimming with musical ideas; the band stitched together disco, sea chanties and whatever else they could get their hands on. The result was a lot of fun, if lacking in focus. They began reigning in their kitchen sink instincts with 2003’s Magic and Medicine, a solid, confident (but still fun) record, made all the more amazing by the fact that the band members’ ages ranged from only 20 to 22 when the album came out. In the span of two years, though, the band must’ve turned into wizened old men, as song titles like “She Sings the Mourning”, “Far From the Crowd” and “Leaving Today” attest.
That’s not to say they’re not fun anymore. The album’s leadoff single, “In the Morning”, is a folksy slice of ‘60s pop, with friendly keyboards (courtesy Nick Power) and handclaps. The tune hit #1 on the UK playlist charts, though in a country where a cellphone ring featuring a cartoon frog can top the charts, I’m not sure what the Coral’s chart success means. Meanwhile, the jaunty “So Long Ago” takes a similar tack as “In the Morning” in its early ‘60s vibe; both tunes could have appeared on the Nuggets II box set.
And, of course, for a band that once sang a song about a dude who turned into a tree (the first album’s “Simon Diamond”), there’s a few weird tunes lurking on The Invisible Invasion. The paranoid “The Operator” is fueled by a menacing keyboard line and Skelly’s genuinely creepy lyrics (“They laid me on the bed / Drilled my head / The incision bled / Put wires in my brain / Every now and again / I remember a name”). The song owes a lot to the Thinking Fellers Union Local #282’s “The Operation”, but the Coral capture their own sinister vibe on the tune. Less successful is “Arabian Sand”, which simply doesn’t fit the rest of the album; it’s too weird and doesn’t sound as carefully considered as the other tracks.
But ah yes—the “lonely” songs. Where to start? Well, there the bleak “Warning to the Curious” which opens with the cynical (if true?) advice, “It’s better not to be in love / Than to be inbetween”. And most of The Invisible Invasion‘s b-side is taken up by a (to these ears) three-part suite: “Come Home” is stripped down (by the band’s standards) psych-pop, with Skelly’s narrator patiently waiting for a loved one (spouse? son?) to, uh, come home. “Far From the Crowd” shares a similar sentiment, and tosses in a gentle tribal beat for good measure, adding a notion of distance and alienation. The band closes the pseudo-suite with “Leaving Today” (“I’m closing the door / To this old empty house / Of sorrows”). This is pure conjecture here, but it seems like Skelly, after years of writing songs about travelers at sea (“Spanish Main”, “Skeleton Key”), has stretched his (already considerable) writing skills and now tells the tales of those left ashore while others go off on their pirate adventures. It’s just a theory.
Now for the harsh truth: If the Coral’s first album didn’t break them Stateside, then nothing will. I’m sure I’m the millionth critic to note this, but The Invisible Invasion may prove to be an unfortunately apt title in America, with accent on the invisible. It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, be this way. The Coral are doing exciting, creative things that few of their contemporaries dare to attempt.