Quick quiz: Hands up if you remember Maxïmo Park. You know, post-punk, angular, indie, all those dreadful synonyms stacked side-by-side. Somewhere in the mid-oughts (another term that evokes a shudder), these boys and their sharp riffs and sharper suits seemed to be the next big thing. Maybe they were. It’s hard to remember at a distance. All that counts is that they had good hooks and were romantic in a ruined way, singing love-struck anthems that strode the border between pessimism and reality.
If their 2005 debut, A Certain Trigger, was undeniable, 2007 follow-up Our Earthly Pleasures was most memorable for its album cover. It wasn’t a bad record, necessarily, but that hype and buzz and jittery energy just didn’t keep too well. As for number three, Quicken the Heart, I’m still not sure that it actually existed. With album number four, The National Health, enough time seems to have passed to allow a step back, a breather, and let the boys get down to business.
Opener “When I was Wild” is oh-so-serious, and referring to himself as “the artist” does not bode well for songwriter Paul Smith’s ego. But, thank god, the hooks hit hard by track number two, “The National Health”. “England is ill and it is not alone,” Smith croons in his sublimely goofy accent. “Maybe things will change tomorrow,” he mutters gruffly, but if his heart’s not in it, well, that’s probably the point.
After all, Smith deals in the business of disappointed dreamers, the blokes that can name-check Fellini without realizing their world is coming apart. His is an endless series of dissatisfied lovers, a mélange of missed encounters and romantic missteps. But his desperate protagonists never stop trying; the Smithsian “Wolf Among Men” consoles with the misleading promise that “It’s not a crime to want to leave the house tonight” before wondering “What’s it like to really surrender? What’s it like to really give in?”
“I know you’re gonna leave,” Smith slurs on “Take Me Home”, “So grant me my reprieve / Take me home / I want you.” It’s simple, direct, sincere, near-perfect, like so many tracks on this set. Full of life, energy, and style, The National Health sounds positively fresh. And there’s nary a misstep; we could do without the ’80s-posing of “Banlieue”, but there are worse sins than a hint of synth. There’s an unrepentant sweetness buried beneath the sour smell of stale beer and disaffected poses: “I won’t survive,” Smith swears, “but I intend to have a good time.” Is he trying to convince his listeners, or just himself?
Somehow, a return to their roots has made Maxïmo Park stronger and more vital than they’ve been in years; without the glum posturing of earlier efforts, they sound revived, enthused, even novel. There’s something inherently moving to their songs, even if it’s not the same youthful exuberance it was so many years ago. While some might lament a return to form rather than a branching out, there’s little to complain about a smart band making brilliant pop songs.
The National Health is the sound of a band finding themselves again, finding themselves stronger and sweeter than ever, finding that, despite the dour hints around the edges, they’re still here for the pop songs — and god, aren’t they gorgeous?