A full-length album by Theme Park? Even now, with this self-titled debut from the London band actually upon us, it still seems like an odd idea. Over the better part of two years, this soul- and funk-tinged pop group have mastered the art of very slowly trickling out their music to accrue the maximum level of buzz. Way back in 2011 there was “Milk”, which made them overnight blog darlings; next “Wax”, title track of a subsequent US EP; and more recently another series of singles has gradually emerged to oh-so-slowly tease the release of an LP which might well have been released last year, were it not for Theme Park’s calculated patience.
The prospect of Theme Park the LP is intriguing not just because it demands the long-form expression of a band who have been short-form for so long, but also because it requires extended, consistent work in the studio. By contrast, Theme Park have primarily become known in the UK — and to lesser extent, the rest of Europe — for their live sets, each one a concentrated burst of irresistibly catchy singles. On both these points, the recording of an album asks: what else do you have? While it does find them wanting in one or two areas, the experience of recording the LP has been largely successful for Theme Park, seeing them extend and gently experiment with their sound without compromising their core focus on carefree and infectiously fun pop music.
Particularly on initial listens, a recent run of singles — “Jamaica”, “Tonight” and “Two Hours” — dominate the experience that is listening to the first half of the record. Tested to destruction in the fickle venues of London’s live scene, they exist here as veritable pop missiles, precisely targeted and unstoppable in their impact. When Theme Park are at their best, they rely on a combination of smooth guitars, engaging vocals and lyrics that are about love, escapism, and generally having a good time. That they manage to do this without seeming overly shallow or self-consumed is actually a small victory in itself, given the tendency in that direction in the music industry and the wider world today. There’s an earnestness about Theme Park, instrumentally and vocally, that helps them through.
If there’s a previously-released song which fails to really spark it is “Wax”. Long one of the most essential songs in Theme Park’s live repertoire, it has never sounded quite as thrilling on record (ironic, given its title). Ideally, a re-recorded version could have come closer to capturing the live energy, but it hasn’t happened. One of the reasons could stem from Theme Park’s quiet transition to a three-piece last year; that process cost them a drummer, and of the songs on this album it is “Wax” which arguably feels most weakened by the reliance on synthetic beats which just don’t have the punch that a guitar band really requires.
As for the band’s gestures towards experimentation, these are predictably modest, but do hit more often than they miss. The fairly high prominence of synths might grate with those who may have seen Theme Park as the UK’s foremost new guitar band, but they complement nicely the riffs which are much more about groove than rocking per se. The calypso touches on “Ghosts” are similarly fun, and more than a touch stronger than the curious “Saccades (Lines We Delay)”, the album’s loosest effort, not improved by the always-frustrating decision to make the vocals unintelligible.
A pop band through and through, Theme Park make no grandiose statements of intent on their long-awaited debut. This is a fun album, and one crafted with such impressive care and attention that even a few hardcore rockist musos might not be able to keep from being carried away.