Stereophonics have never been a smiles and sunshine kind of band, but neither has their material been as thoroughly dark as that found on Graffiti on the Train.
Stereophonics just do not get the respect, or the credit, they deserve. It seems requisite for any article on them to classify the group as “meat and potatoes", though I for one am baffled by this, as the Welsh band is anything but generic to my American sensibilities. They’re dependable and consistent, but far from predictable cock-rock churning out rock-by-numbers or variations of the same song. Their songs are goddamn catchy, and at times anthemic, but by no means formulaic. While it wouldn’t be accurate to characterize them as an experimental band, it would not be inappropriate to say they do experiment with their sonic palette, pushing their boundaries, incorporating disparate elements without forfeiting their distinctive sound.
The fact that they have survived long enough to have an eighth studio album, Graffiti on the Train, is a testament to the fact that they have consciously avoided the pitfall of stagnancy or playing it safe. Again, maybe my American perspective of “meat and potatoes” is different than that in Stereophonics’ native UK; the ‘phonics have a level of earnestness and sincerity that is, with a few exceptions, inherently sacrificed by homegrown bands that become American rock radio staples. While I consider it absurd Stereophonics aren’t more popular in the US, perhaps the fact they aren’t is an affirmation of how apart the connotations of the meat and potatoes platitude are on either side of the pond.
Stereophonics has never been a smiles and sunshine kind of band, but neither has their material been as thoroughly dark as that found on Graffiti on the Train. Themes of separation, last chances, regret, nostalgia, and fleeting impermanence define the record. It should be noted that this is Stereophonics’ first album since the 2010 death of founding drummer Stuart Cable, and it’s tempting to ascribe the melancholia that pervades the work to his passing. As the bitterest of silver linings, however, Cable’s death seems to have reinvigorated the band’s artistry, with frontman Kelly Jones writing his best batch of songs since 2005’s Language. Sex. Violence. Other?.
From first song “We Share the Same Sun”, with its opening acoustic plucking and the lonesome character in Jones’ frayed voice, the template mood and feeling of isolation is established. The chorus finds the piece erupting into a raucous bombast and Jones howling the declaration that is the song’s title, that the only thing affording solace and connecting two geographically separated people is that the same star shines upon them. It may seem reassuring on the surface, but it's actually quite a lonely sentiment, and not all that soothing a balm, doing more to magnify the distance than nullify it. The diametrically opposing interpretations the song imparts -- either affirming or depressing -- set the stage for the tragic irony of the title track that follows.
Lyrically, “Graffiti on the Train” initially seems like a Hallmarkian, saccharine love song of a man spray painting a marriage proposal on the side of a commuter train. Such fluff is upended when the protagonist is accidentally killed by the train. The sucker-punch of emotion is made all the more heartrending when, in the second verse, the would-be fiancée learns of her partner’s death after seeing his request for her hand. The track is laced with a sense of dread or an elegiac quality from the outset, and the sweeping strings that build and swell throughout it hammer out the drama of the situation in cinematic fashion. If there is a message in the song, it is that the world is brutal and random, and cares nothing for your romantic aspirations; death, by its nature, follows its own schedule. Some might say it is a cynical position, but that doesn’t negate it being entirely accurate. It’s a despairing statement as well, and it is telling that the band chose the number to share its name with the album as a whole. As an aside, the song may feature Jones’ finest vocal take to date.
The theme of loss is continued with “Indian Summer”, the currently circulating single, wherein Jones wearily waxes nostalgic on a lost love. “She was the one / For me / She opened my eyes / To see”, he sings, and while on paper the lyrics are about as simple as can be, in his ever-forlorn voice, their gravitas reverberates in any listener who’s been in the same circumstance. Therein lies Jones’ key for being a great songwriter -- he can trigger your emotional cues by marrying the simplest language with evocative melodies.
As with “Graffiti on the Train”, the coloring effect of classic stringed instruments provides the extra texture needed to drive the point home. The violins’ presence is abounding throughout the record, handled deftly in virtually every circumstance and augmenting Stereophonics’ sound in just the right measure without dominating it. The instrument itself is referenced directly in “Violins & Tambourines”, a pensive piece with blues guitar lines that escalate into a mesmerizing swirl of rapid percussion and strained strings. “I killed a man / But life is cheap, they say”, Jones’ character states, again reinforcing the world’s callous disregard for mortals’ plans.
Apart from the blues motifs on “Violins & Tambourines”, the ‘phonics reference various other musical styles throughout the album. “Been Caught Cheating” is a Memphis soul send-up, complete with the barroom clatter of a drunken choir, electric organ washes, and pint glasses clinking. “In a Moment”, the record’s first single, dallies with electronic elements, and “Take Me” is a slice of noir ambience with a repetitive, hypnotic piano melody and a shackle-dragging rhythm. That it features Jones trading lyrics with a ghostly female only adds to the creep vibe: “Bowl me over from the start”, he says, before his spectral partner whispers in response, “Poison arrow through the heart.” The album even features a slight bit of funk on closer “Zoe”, the bass slapping infectious and resounding.
Despite the lauding, the album isn’t perfect. The few outright rockers, such as “Catacomb”, seem like token elements. “Roll of the Dice”, placed as the centerpiece of the record, goes for an epic sprawl but largely falls flat. “No-one’s Perfect”, a particularly dull ballad, also isn’t likely to garner repeated listens except when one is committed to absorbing the album from front to back. These criticisms aside, Graffiti on the Train is a marvelously realized, tightly played album. If rock records of this nature were indeed of the most basic variety, music fans would be so lucky. (And for the record, my praising of the album is genuine and not some play to avoid being the subject of a “Mr. Writer”-esque finger-pointing number on Stereophonics’ part.)