Somewhere along the way, the ‘Grass deflated its hot air balloon, which had toured celestial bodies at hyper speeds, and touched down on solitude. Slipping from their silver space suits and moon boots, the four lads traded the high altitude obsession of Sagan for the reflective countryside of Flaubert, converting a Normandy barn into their very own makeshift studio. Interrupt the cosmic trajectory—instead of assimilating with the stars, Supergrass would sleep beneath them.
This creative venture of isolation, and the resulting record, Road to Rouen, isn’t a shock, but it is unexpected. According to “Kiss of Life” and “Bullet”, the two new tracks on last year’s Supergrass Is 10: Best of 94-04 compilation, Supergrass was on a path to become cold as steel, classically virulent and emotionally distant, new age spacemen who shrouded their wicked Britpop songs in synthetic gargles. They were taking all the artifacts they had extracted from the velvet goldmine and beyond—sparkly bits of Bowie and T-Rex, a box of the Faces’ English mullets, buzz saws from the Buzzcocks—and returning them to a proper place in outer space. But now, in mellow contradiction to the new singles’ prophecy, comes Road to Rouen, a record that has more in common with meadow mists than star clusters. Those who long for the bug-eyed beach-sprinting teenagers of I Should Coco will shun the direction, citing the band’s inevitable drop-off into the abyss of—gulp—maturity to now be past the point of no return.
Not exactly. Supergrass’ unbridled youthfulness arguably peaked on its second record, In It for the Money, courtesy of the turbine-powered “Richard III” and “Tonight”; ever since, the Oxford, England band has been steadily flirting with maturity. The band’s self-titled third record found it slowing down the fire truck tempos and juicing up the atmosphere, while 2003’s Life on Other Planets was a collection of frothy rock tunes with wisened sensibilities. The ‘Grass—Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn, and Danny Goffey, along with Coombes’s brother Rob on keyboards—has long since abandoned the Dorian Gray role the press is so determined to perpetuate, and with it, abandoned the hyper-urgent kids’ play.
Road to Rouen isn’t entirely the stuff of rocking chairs and Sunday drives, but it is the first Supergrass record to champion an overall vibe over immediacy. Stylistically, it picks up where Supergrass left off, exploring pensive premonitions, fancying Pink Floyd moonbeams and Bowie daydreams and late-period Beatles pastorals. While that may sound like pretentious grownup soul searching, Supergrass is still four cheeky lads: cheeky enough to title its record with a bad pun; cheeky enough to sequence a loveable throwaway song (“Coffee in the Pot”) immediately following an epic hemorrhaging with luscious strings (“Roxy”). “St. Petersburg”, the record’s first single, is minor-key hammock swing, strings and zither surfacing in its center. Its downtrodden sway suggests a much-needed lifting of burdens from the group’s collective constitution (it is, in fact, the most uncharacteristic single the band has ever released), and Coombes’s vocal implies a similar need for quarter: “In three days I’ll be outta here / And it’s not a day too soon”.
Still, don’t let the countryside conception fool you—Road to Rouen isn’t all daisies and duvets. In fact, the quieter moments make up roughly half of the 35-minute album. Elsewhere, it’s textbook Supergrass rock, albeit with the skies painted in orchestral arrangements. “Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)” splices together different takes of the same song to find invigoration in juxtaposition: it opens with rich acoustic instrumentation, accented with a regal horn section, before inverting the organic groove into a sticky blast of steely funk (a similar dichotomy was thrillingly exploited on Supergrass’ “Moving”). It’s an exceptional song, but also something of an unfortunate inclusion in this particular sequence—such an abrupt slap upside the head, a forceful pulse that precedes the straight-and-narrow, is too lofty a challenge for some of the more pedestrian songs to live up to. “Kick in the Teeth” and the title track are decent, but formulaic enough to appear stagnant. More successful is the melancholy and melodic “Sad Girl”, a sinewy mid-tempo tune that finds middle ground between soft and rough, and “Low C”, the penultimate track that effectively wraps up the record and ushers it into slumberland.
The only thing blatantly missing from Road to Rouen is the embarrassment of fiery songs, so crucial to Supergrass’ status as one of the UK’s best singles band. There’s no “Sun Hits the Sky”, no “Pumping on Your Stereo”, no “Mary” or “Grace” or “Seen the Light”—all well and good, for bands adapt and evolve, but that just means a little more patience is required before the album fully sinks in. When it does, no great revelations are waiting—Road to Rouen is just four guys making neo-glam rock, chilled, minus the incidental excesses, in less-than glamorous settings. A cosmic shame? Not really; even comedowns are only mastered at great heights.
// Notes from the Road
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