Someone, somewhere, thinks the Enemy are the voice of a generation. It might be their fans, it might be Warner Bros, but more likely it’s the band themselves, who no doubt would have it that they’re the spiritual embodiment of the disenchanted working-class youth, angry at their bosses, the police, politicians, rich kids, Londoners, and, obviously, that unfailing paradigm of society’s every failing—“The Man”.
Certainly, the Coventry trio have no dearth of axes to grind on their debut album. On the catchy “Away from Here” it’s their dead-end jobs and the dreariness of the 9-5 working life. Opener “Aggro” is a football hooligan’s anthem, inciting tribal warfare against the police for no particular reason, while the Jam-aping (a common pursuit in the life of the Enemy) title-track aims its vitriol at the stagnancy of their apparently stifling hometown.
Except, let’s think about that for a minute. This a band who, despite being in their early twenties, have had a No.1 album on a major label, several hit singles, and are playing to hefty audiences around the world. Speculation of specifics aside, they’re certainly earning enough to be comfortable as full-time musicians, and are probably living the rock star dream. Their egos will be generously massaged by hangers-on, their livers replenished at someone else’s expense, and their libidos satisfied by plentiful groupies. And yet, the opening seconds of “Away from Here” (one of those several hit singles), frontman Tom Clarke—in sound half Paul Weller, half Liam Gallagher—complains he’s “so sick, sick sick and tired / Of working just to be retired”. You sure?
At best, this seems contrived. When Clarke sings “I’m fed up of early mornings” or “You’re earning other people money”, you feel pretty sure that it comes not from the heart, but from the knowledge that it will strike a chord with those of their fans not quite lucky enough to have made it big in the music business.
As well as being artificial, slating an unattractive lifestyle which you don’t even lead seems both smug and patronising. On the “We Live and Die in These Towns”, Clarke sings “Your life’s slipping and sliding away from you / And there’s absolutely nothing that you can do”. But given that he himself has escaped the 9-5 drudgery he so despises, it comes across not as sincerity, but as a deprecatory dig. “Ha!” it seems to say, “We’re globetrotting rock stars, and what are you? You’re still stuck in Coventry!”
Nevertheless, the whole ‘songs for the people’ tenet might seem at least palatable if it hadn’t been done bolder and better a long time ago. A full 14 years after Liam Gallagher first snarled, “Is it worth the aggrava-shee-un to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for?”, there’s hardly a great relevance in yet another working-class lad pointing out how little fun it is getting up early in the morning. Hell, even the cruelly, malevolently shit Ordinary Boys picked up on that one.
That’s not to say that the Enemy are on anywhere near the scale of awfulness which the Ordinary Boys descended to (heard this, lately?), but the flaws in We Live and Die in These Towns mar an album which does have some silver linings. For all its irreparable lyrical failings, “Away from Here” has an undeniably hooky chorus, and in this respect its chart success is arguably deserved, certainly expected. But it’s the title track that is the greatest success. Its pre-chorus may echo “Going Underground” a little too much for comfort, but chiming guitar, horns, a drumbeat built for handclaps, and an anthemic vocal suggest the band are at least shooting for something greater than lad rock anonymity.
“Technodanceaphobic”, as its name suggests, is the one moment where the band actually sound like they’re having fun, and is all the better for it. It’s slightly clichéd mistimed hi-hat and bouncy riff might not be anything hugely original, but sprinklings of xylophone and an upbeat, anger-free (shock! horror!) tone are a welcome respite from the perpetual axe-grinding elsewhere.
But it’s that song, too, that highlights another crucial failing in the Enemy: they are almost always entirely devoid of humour. In theory, the likes of the Coventry trio and say, the Arctic Monkeys, come from the same musical neck of the woods. They both play catchy, undemanding indie; at times easy to relate to, if unlikely to change your outlook on life. But it’s the differences between the two that make them seem a world apart, and that make the Monkeys so much more satisfying. Alex Turner is as close as you’ll get to an indie-rock poet, and his often astute lyricism comes loaded with sarcasm, irony, and cynicism. Clarke, on the other hand, remains po-faced through These Towns.
And that’s why, even when broaching the same subject matter, the gulf between the two remains insurmountable. In “Fluorescent Adolescent”, Turner quips, in alliterative quotability, of one his own protagonists’ stale life, “You used to get it in your fishnets / Now you only get it in your nightdress / Started all your naughty nights with niceness / Landed in a very common crisis”.
And what’s Cooke’s observation, to counter this? “Name badges are not interesting”.