In 2005 Art Brut seemed built for the short haul. Debut album Bang Bang Rock & Roll delivered a smash of art punk and wry comedy and even a little sweetness with the fantastic “Emily Kane”. Even so, the recently formed band felt like lightning in a bottle – a few tossed-off hooks, some one-liners, and enough gumption for one unforgettable album. That idea proved to be misguided, as the group worked steadily with shifts to their sound and a charismatic enough frontman to carry whatever they did. Now they return with their fifth studio album, the punctuation-heavy Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! While the record has its moments, the band also sounds just true to form, well into an unlikely career and comfortable.
The album title itself echoes that memorable debut. Bang! We’re a band! We do rock things! But not entirely with a straight face! That the British rockers know themselves by this point doesn’t mean their coasting. They’ve grown, and recent albums, including this one, have been much less one-note than their first one. With its bouncy groove and touch of space, “Hospital!” offers an almost comic take on an in-patient experience, but it works more as a rallying cry to get out and get healthy and behave, even if you don’t have your sense of humor removed.
That sensibility remains key to the band. The first two tracks deal with romantic break-ups (and more) with a smirk. “Hooray!” celebrates the fact that great music can be born from relationship disasters, and as Argos runs through increasingly silly responses to heartbreak, mistakes, and “misadventure”, the band goes along with him to the party. Rarely has bad news sounded so good. “I Hope You’re Very Happy Together” specifically targets romance. The song turns on its misdirection, as Argos sings, “I hope you’re very happy together / And if you’re not, that’s even better.” The honesty comes through as much as the wit, as he struggles to destroy the past without success. As a pair, the two songs work together perfectly. Sure, he says in one, we don’t get albums like Rumours without some bad decisions; on the other hand, maybe it isn’t worth it if we have to divide up our record collection.
Not all of the album is so fetching. “Veronica Falls” rises (or not) on knowledge of bands Veronica Falls and Del Amitri and a joke about wishing you’d cheated on your girlfriend. It never quite takes off. “She Kissed Me (And It Felt Like a Hit)” uses joyful ’90s alt-rock to describe a first kiss, but relies on cliché and refers, as Argos does to “Top of the Pops”. The song manages to be both energetic and filler. The title track represents both the album’s strengths and its weakness. The catchiness, over-the-top guitar, and the fun (including an easy-to-miss Lionel Richie reference make it utterly lovable. At the same time, it lacks a truly memorable line, and the phrasing suggests the steadier – but better – “Modern Art”.
Art Brut has refined their sound without, fortunately, becoming themselves refined. From its title to its execution, Wham! Bang! glides on the sort of art pop that the band does so well. Argos continues to be funny and charming, and the band has plenty of hooks. At the same time, the new record doesn’t quite have the character of previous releases, and with the many superficial connections to the start of the band’s career, it puts itself in a tough position. Art Brut still gives us plenty of reasons to rock out, but this album doesn’t leave enough of its own mark.