“Classic” is a confusing term when applied to cultural products and practices, and music is no exception. In popular music discourse the word can often mean tried, tested, conventional, and unoriginal. Confusingly, it can also signify an avoidance or transcendence of norms. Athlete fall into the former, rather than the latter category. Over the course of three studio albums released between 2003 and 2007, they proved themselves very competent at producing post-Coldplay emotive rock, their guitar-and-drums aesthetic enhanced by occasional electronic bleepery. The latter was included presumably to give a contemporary edge to the “classic” quality of the songs, but bleepery in rock has been around for so long now that it has itself acquired a sense of the classic.
Their fourth album, Black Swan, does not take the group’s sound any further forward. Having settled on the kind of dynamic favored by Coldplay, Snow Patrol, and Keane, they seem to have focused their efforts instead on packing as many emotional gearshifts as possible into each of these ten tracks. Singer-guitarist Joel Pott works the rasp of his voice against the shifting moods of the instrumental backdrop. It’s an effective tool and certainly carries enough emotional gravitas (and throat gravel) to deliver sincerity. Each song comes wrapped in a vocal patina that signals hearts being worn on sleeves, securities and insecurities being shared, feelings stripped down to their intense essence. On some tracks strings rise in the background to usher the point home. The performative emotionalism is deafening, the glare of raised mobile phones in future stadia blinding.
There is no denying a certain haunting quality to the music, but it’s a haunting largely carried out by the ghosts of pop’s past. The opening lines of “The Getaway” echo a facet of 1980s pop-rock balladry that is at once utterly familiar (there really was a track that began like that … wasn’t there?) and tantalizingly un-pin-downable (perhaps a Freudian screen memory, something we’re sure existed but which is really the resulting formation of subsequent experiences). The guitar momentum given to “The Unknown” provides an Edge-like dynamic to the Bono-esque, blustering pomposity of the lyric. A more recent specter, less prone perhaps to memory’s imaginations, is the “Yellow”-like guitar attack partway through “Don’t Hold Your Breath”. More generally, the vocal failure/desperation/emotion/yearning used in this song and many others on the album is essentially that used by Chris Martin. While it may be tiresome to keep trotting the C-word out, I can’t recall a recent song as Coldplay-by-numbers as “The Awkward Goodbye”.
Then there are the lyrics, some of which are clever and utilize sophisticated rhymes and meters, others of which are just painful. Of the latter, the recent single “Black Swan Song” is a particular minefield, offering such hazards as “when I climb into eternity”, “when I parachute into eternity”, and “I’m ready for my final symphony”. “The Unknown”, meanwhile, urges its listener to “let your world be wide open”, “your fears be blown apart”, and “your voice be louder than bombs”. Perhaps these words are no sillier than those found in other artists’ work, but the incessant sincerity of Athlete’s musical approach compounds the issue, emphasizing and enlarging lyrical folly to reveal its bloated stadium-pleasing excess.
Of course, most popular music is the result of certain formulas and one could argue that what ultimately matters is how certain artists perform the requisite authenticity work to mask the ropes and pulleys of their concoctions. A reasonably large constituency seems to be willing to overlook Athlete’s particular brand of trickery. For them, many of these songs may prove to be majestic — life-affirming, even. Even for those who are not convinced, there is no denying that this group know very well how to make catchy pop records. Annoyingly, these are songs which will get into your head with a formulaic perfection honed by skilled designers in laboratory (and stadium) conditions and delivered by fine craftsmen.
Ultimately, this smoke-and-mirrors approach will not do. The smoke is too smoky, the mirrors too reflective of too much else out there at the moment.