British “student” pop/rock (unfailingly performed by white males) has a fine tradition of different parallel streams. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Who’s muscular rock and iconoclastic pyrotechnics wowed the student audience; as did Pink Floyd’s incomparable moonscapes wow them in bedsit land.The ’80s saw an outbreak of “comedy” bands like Half Man Half Biscuit who specialised in catchy numbers about kids’ cartoons or obscure cult personalities. Pretty insubstantial fare, but Half Man Half Biscuit were more fun than the other ’80s student archetype, epitomised by tall, thin figures dressed in raincoats lost in the pleasure doom of Joy Division, one of Britain’s most influential bands. Joy Division came from Manchester; as did another “greatest ever Brit band”, the Smiths, who to this day are enshrined in the mind’s eye playing their extraordinary combustion of glitter and angst to the student union mob.
Liverpool’s Wombats will never be expressed in the same breath as Joy Division or the Smiths. Except of course that the Wombats did get their slice of 15 minutes with their first hit in 2007 in “Let’s All Dance to Joy Division”. And this blast of amusing indie pop did indeed make the Wombats a favourite down in the student union. Their brand of irreverent brash northern-ness inevitably helped, and they also carried about them a “care less” indie cool.
First album A Guide to Love Loss & Desperation offered up more of the same entertaining fare, its energy and humour standing up to this day. However, perhaps concerned about being tagged a “comedy band”, the Wombats took a left-turn in 2010, dropped the student laughs, and decided that This Modern Glitch (the title itself suggests an urbane mittelEuropa at odds with laddishness) offered a way forward. The music was pared down, but it lacked the personality which the Wombats had previously communicated; plus, the album and associated singles didn’t sell in the same quantities.
So to their third album, Glitterbug, five years on. Have the Wombats gone back to a more entertaining formula? Unfortunately that’s not the case. Instead, on a record that sounds oddly located (from a 2015 perspective) in a place between 1970s dance pop and ’80s chart gloss, they have gone for a halfway house that risks underwhelming their fan base but whose lack of quality song-writing is unlikely to bring many new fans into the Wombats’ world.
Lead singer and lyricist Matthew Murphy has reportedly spent recent time in the US. Not that it shows, unless those hours were passed predominantly in retro ’70s nightclubs. Emoticons is ushered in on a thumping beat which recalls the uninspiring Brit mid-’70s pop charts. “Greek Tragedy” is high on falsetto vocals and is reminiscent of the mid-’80s hit “Obsession” by Animotion — a decent song but hardly a trailblazer. “Be Your Shadow” has bottom end bass synth and sums up the album as a whole — perky, but insubstantial, meandering and featureless.
The overall sound is thin and tinny. There are a few decent interludes: you breathe a sigh of relief when “Isabel” slows down the relentless dance beat: and “English Summer” recalls best the Wombats’ high-spirited indie past. But the whole definitely feels less than the sum of the parts. Murphy tries to give the album some weight by running the songs as a continuous conversation with his girlfriend/wife. But the clunky lyrics drag down the common thread of romance and relationships, so that it can’t alter the overall fact that Glitterbug is sorely lacking in proper tunes.
Murphy hollers “We could be gigantic” on “Give Me a Try”. But it’s not clear he means it, and on “This Is Not a Party”, he sounds, frankly, befuddled. Such moments add to the overall feeling that the Wombats have lost their identity. Perhaps that’s the problem when you grow up.