[31 May 2009]
The sophomore album by Coventry’s The Enemy lurches into frame with the aptly named “Elephant Song”. Likely titled for the guitar screeches in the atmospheric opening, which loosely evoke the trumpet calls of a distant herd of pachyderms, the tune is elephantine in its deliberation. Even as the savanna drops away to reveal a rock ‘n’ roll stadium, replete with epic riffing, orchestral support, and Tom Clarke’s earnest West Midlands barking, there’s a plodding aspect to the result that keeps it stubbornly earthbound. From its opening cut onwards, Music for the People proves altogether too heavy to achieve much lift.
This should not prove all that surprising. The Enemy’s UK #1 debut We’ll Live and Die in These Towns mustered occasional snatches of stolid English rock populism, but was mostly mired in portentous sloganeering and laughable po-faced self-seriousness. Clarke came across as a sullen dustman buttressed by delusions of proletarian-poet ambition, but couldn’t manage even a half-convincing simulation of any of Britain’s many popular voices of that type. On the Enemy’s poky debut, he had neither Noel Gallagher’s evolved melodic sense nor the restless sociological dynamism of Arctic Monkeys impresario Alex Turner.
Clarke still doesn’t really have it on Music for the People (a title that suggests fellow over-earnest Brits the Music and their best-known hit, “The People”, even as its contents approximate the same empty expansive qualities). This is unfortunate, because for all its overwrought ruddiness, there are some ideas here, a gutsy and interesting rock band struggling to assert itself in fleeting moments. The lead single, “No Time for Tears”, boasts sonic points of interest, with its power-chord swagger and Clarke’s passionate assertions of quasi-political nonsense. Its most striking elements may well be recycled, but they still work well enough: the guitar solos owe a debt to a combo Frankenband I choose to call “Echo and the Bunnyverve”, and a Clare Torry sound-alike attempts a detour to the great gig in the sky near the conclusion.
But the feckless borrowings start to pile up like a car wreck soon enough. “Last Goodbye” isn’t a Jeff Buckley cover so much as a clumsy sort-of parody. Clarke snatches the late indie martyr’s guitar tone but also tries to swipe his graceful, elegiac desire; the resultant grasping is a little painful to endure. “Don’t Break the Red Tape”, meanwhile, is (a whole dang lot) like “London Calling” in every way except the good ones. The Who gets predictably riff-checked in “51st State” and “Nation of Checkout Girls”, while the lyrical content of both songs is every bit as mind-numbingly “political” as the titles promise; Clarke’s florid blatancy makes one pine for the comparatively subtle observations of Billie Joe Armstrong (parts of me refuse to believe I just typed those words). “Silver Spoon” continues the Townshend worship, but is all deaf, dumb, and blind kid with no mean pinball. “Sing When You’re in Love” sounds like a Cliff Richard cover sung by an appliance-salesman-turned-crooner on Britain’s Got Talent, even when it’s rocking out. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Simon Cowell’s eyeballs rolling in their sockets.
Still, every tune does have at least a few seconds of good ideas on offer, so it’s hard to dismiss this band entirely. Clarke may be an affected lad, but he can be thoughtful and tries to find something to say each time out, and his guitar work has some visceral appeal now and again. As ponderous as Music for the People can be, it does have some forward momentum, and it’s an undeniable improvement over We’ll Live and Die in These Towns. But it’s still a patchwork quilt taken from torn remnants of richer musical tapestries, and the occasional sheepish grin wouldn’t hurt, either. As I sat through the album, one line in “Be Somebody” leapt up and struck me as somehow emblematically cringe-worthy: “No one ever gives you anything for free / unless you start sleeping with the BBC”. Clarke wants that to sound punk rock, but it winds up loopier than a Glenn Beck rant. If you don’t feel like granting sexual favors to public broadcasting conglomerates, then here’s a suggestion: give the people some better music, and the freebies will come pouring in.