[12 May 2008]
The Proclaimers have certainly already proved themselves comfortable with good, old-fashioned, earnest kitsch. Even to those for whom the name “the Proclaimers” is at first unfamiliar, the band’s tipsily good-natured ear worm can probably reclaim its spot in the head with just a few lines: “When I wake up / Well I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who wakes up next to you…” (Apologies if you are now humming the tune for the rest of the day.) The 1988 recording “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”—popularized in the United States in 1993, when its association with Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon sent it up the charts—proved that the identical twins from Leith, Scotland had a knack for cheesy, slightly nerdy pop anthems as well as possibly the heaviest brogue ever to saturate the American airwaves. The Proclaimers re-released the song as a charity single last spring in the UK, where it again climbed to the top of the charts, and the band has followed that success with Life with You, released last September in the UK and released in the US in April of this year. It’s not quite a “return” for the band, however. Life with You is the band’s seventh studio album, and, not unlike American bands with misleading “one-hit wonder” tags such as Hanson, the band has relied on hard work and a true-blue fan base to propel a career that, while not quite reaching its initial heights, has remained steady.
But unlike bands like Hanson, who have built their sturdy on-going careers on music with a bit more backbone than the fizzy pop single that made them famous, Charlie and Craig Reid have hewn closely to their formula. They stay so close to their formula, in fact, that three separate songs begin with a series of rhythmic chords that sound suspiciously similar to the intro to “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” (incidentally, two of these songs have nearly identical lyrical openings as well: “When I was a younger man”, begins “Life with You”, foreshadowing the Wreckless Eric cover “Whole Wide World” nine tracks later, which begins looking slightly farther back to “When I was a young boy”). It’s not always a bad thing when an act does what they know best, but the problem here is that none of the songs are anywhere near as sticky as the famous single. On song after song, from the overblown opener “Life with You” to the church organ ushering in “New Religion” to the gestures at blues underpinning “The Lover’s Face”, the Reid brothers seem to be working up a sweat looking for a hook and never quite stumbling upon anything memorable. And while there are a few nice musical flourishes here and there—a pretty string line adds harmony to “In Recognition”, and late in “Here It Comes Again”, the song unexpectedly opens out into an energetic round-robin call-and-answer—but the production feels mostly flat and the album as a whole never comes alive.
The lyrics do the songs no great service, either. Too often “honesty” in songwriting is a euphemism for “blunt artlessness,” and here the lyrics, while no doubt heartfelt, are as nimble as a steamroller. Relying heavily on simplistic and predictable rhyme structures, the Proclaimers roll through a number of weighty topics—consumerism, conformism, racism and religious fundamentalism, unrepentant political leaders dragging their citizens into unending wars—that could stand a less heavy hand, or at the very least a new perspective. Instead we get: “The threat – they say / Comes from countries ending ‘an’ / Where the family name is Khan/ And they all read the Koran”. At their worst, the lyrics come off as the text to a bad life coaching class, as in “Harness Pain”, in which the listener is instructed that “You need to harness pain / To raise yourself up again…You need to break your heart / Before you can really start”. Even when the topic could be refreshing, such as “Here It Comes Again’s” condemnation of misogyny in pop music, the presentation is preachy and overcooked.
A second disc released as part of a limited special edition showcases seven live tracks that demonstrate a vigor that’s almost entirely absent from the album proper, suggesting that the Proclaimers might be a band best experienced live. Still, the material on Life with You doesn’t give much hope that the band will break past their “one-hit wonder” status, at least for a while.