The Darkness have become classic rock’s dinner theatre act. When the Suffolk-based Darkness broke globally in 2003 with the stellar Permission to Land, propelled by the infectious lead single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”, it was hard to know exactly what could come next. That record is such a singular work, a dead-on evocation of classic rock’s cocaine-fueled 1970s heydays, that it seemed that the Darkness was put on this planet to record that one LP.
Over the course of Permission to Land’s ten tracks, the group mines nearly every trope of classic rock, so much so that they left little to explore on the records which followed that album. Those releases – 2007’s One Way Ticket to Hell (and Back), 2012’s Hot Cakes, 2015’s Last of Our Kind, and 2017’s Pinewood Smile – proved to be cases of diminishing returns, with the schtick of Permission to Land stretched well past its flexibility after One Way Ticket. There’s only so much mileage to get out of the concept: “What if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was sentient, and made albums?”
Easter Is Cancelled, the band’s sixth studio LP, therefore promises a lot. For a group that’s well past its heyday to record a big concept album, especially one whose concept is “What if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross, and had instead fought the Romans?” is to aim high with minimal expectations. Absurdities compound: Jesus is a buff bodybuilder on the album art, frontman Justin Hawkins at one point rhymes “hors d’oeuvres” with “Heimlich maneuver”, and the interlude “Deck Chair” sounds like Andrew Lloyd Weber miming Opeth. It would all be too ridiculous if the name “The Darkness” wasn’t emblazoned in golden letters, likened to the light of God, on the cover of the record. In keeping with the spirit of excess, Hawkins proclaimed Easter Is Cancelled to be “the grandest statement any band has ever made”. He added, “The result is a literally Biblical record, and those who have said that rock and roll is the Devil’s music should listen and understand that it is, in truth, the voice of God.” Okay then.
The phrase “concept album” doesn’t not work when describing Easter Is Cancelled, but it’s also not necessary to understand what’s going on. Unlike the great concept albums in rock history, the Darkness don’t do much to signpost any sort of plot. Nor do they lay out the tracks in such a way that one can follow what’s going on. Easter Is Cancelled makes more sense as a yet-to-be-mounted rock ‘n’ roll version of Medieval Times, or as an original cast recording of a jukebox musical about the redeeming power of rock music. In the end, even if one scraps any organizing frameworks like these and just takes this music as a set of goofy rock tributes, the Darkness do something surprising: they put together their best collection of original music since Permission to Land.
Many of these tunes hold water with the strongest cuts on that debut. “How Can I Lose Your Love?”, with its superb chorus and chugging power chords, sounds like a tune that’s been around since Aerosmith put out Toys in the Attic. Palm-muted guitars on the verses of “Live ‘Til I Die” set the stage perfectly for Hawkins’ falsetto in the chorus, which still sounds as stellar as it did back in 2003. “Heavy Metal Lover”, the kind of tune that’s bound to be a smashing closeout number at future concerts, pays tribute to its titular genre with an infectious chorus. “Heavy metal lover / I just wanna be with you.”
In these and other cases on Easter Is Cancelled, the songwriting feels tight and focused. Unlike records such as Hot Cakes, this LP emphasizes craftsmanship over showmanship. Hot Cakes begins with Hawkins shouting “Suck my cock!”; the first cut of Easter Is Cancelled builds tension with a folk-metal mandolin introduction, after which Hawkins’ vocals soar over gentle mellotron chords. Showmanship is never in short supply, but the band’s focus was clearly in the songs themselves first and foremost.
Easter Is Cancelled isn’t a total home run. The bluesy riff of the title tune is the kind of thing that both the Darkness and classic rock bands everywhere have beaten to death. If you’ve ever watched a TV sitcom featuring a montage of a character walking pensively down a beach, you’ve heard “In Another Life”. I’m still not exactly sure what “Deck Chair” is, except for maybe a chance for Hawkins to sing in French. “La vie / La temps / La mort,” he muses, only to go on in the next track and declare Easter canceled. But, then again, it’s the Darkness. Even at their best, they were all over the place. Even the fantastic Permission to Land has a song which features the following lyric: “Black shuck / Black shuck / Black schuck / That dog doesn’t give a fuck!”
Messiness has always been a part of the Darkness’ music. The Darkness make their most compelling music when it’s neither too corny nor too self-serious. Think Jack White without all the pretensions and fetishizations of retro instruments. Easter Is Cancelled may not be high art, but it doesn’t need to be. It is that rare delight: a return to form following a lengthy period of artistic stagnation.