Maximo Park are no strangers to vocalizing their thoughts about the current state of affairs. The Newcastle upon Tyne band openly explored the troubling erosion of the British class system on their fourth effort, The National Health, expressing these convictions with a spitfire urgency that dates back to their breakthrough effort A Certain Trigger. It partially revitalized a band that has constantly been proving to themselves, and others, that they’re not a passé post-punk revival act. The National Health was also mired in unconvincing political platitudes that, while it made for some catchy choruses, undermined frontman Paul Smith’s erudite persona. So they distanced themselves from it with the release of Too Much Information, an album that brought Smith’s new romantic flourishes forward with songs that careened between spiky synth pop and anguished balladry.
In having a sizable fanbase, Maximo Park have the freedom to progressively experiment with each subsequent release. That also means they can readily go back to the issues that matter to them without compromising much of their anthemic thrust. So it’s no surprise that on their latest, Risk to Exist, they lay out an impassioned cry of protest. On the album’s title track, Smith promptly nudges us to pay attention to our current political milieu (“Now the regimes that we propped up have descended into a living hell”) before we completely lose our rights. Considering how many nations are worryingly flipping to more rightist agendas, it’s less an imminent call-to-arms about the recent Brexit results and more a cautionary tale on how societal complacency leads to covert manipulation.
Smith also holds a sincere approach. Instead of assuming that he holds any answers, he inserts himself with a frank, conversational tone on “I’ll Be Around”, where he questions the temperament his songs will take when he’s trying not to be too pompous. It’s a casual head-nodder that simply asks for togetherness when things get tough, though it’s so placid in tone that you wish he would go back to stressing the syllables in cacophony like he did on The National Health. Granted, he still hasn’t lost his touch when the sensual and the intellectual mingle together, like in “Get High (No, I Don’t),” where Smith emits an affected moan (“The language you use just gives me the blues / it’s what you, oh, intended to do”) as a glam-flecked, Supergrass-reminiscent guitar rushes through. Just like the title track, it brings forth the band’s strength of writing caffeinated sing-a-longs that don’t overshadow their heart-on-sleeve sentiments.
But as with every Maximo Park album since the underwhelming Quicken the Heart, Risk to Exist also has a nagging tendency to drastically change the template with underwhelming results. Sometimes it works. The danceable “What Equals Love?” has the makings of a soft-rock hit circa 1986, with a leisurely strut that comes across as if Phoenix were covering Prefab Sprout, where Smith doesn’t forget that his predilect lyrical theme will always be that of the lovestruck man in search of compromise. It’s when they take those dace/funk fusions too far that things get too cloying. “The Hero” is an attempt to write the kind of immaculate British electro-pop they’ve always smartly circumvented, while the painfully earnest “Respond to the Feeling,” with its tacked-on Nile Rodgers chords and Italo disco motifs, adopts greeting-card truisms that are strangely uncharacteristic for Smith.
Still, there’s a lot of Risk to Exist to rightfully justify Maximo Park as a band worth caring about. When Smith is given a snappy rhythm to write over, he usually succeeds. “The Reason I Am Here” sounds like a lost track off of their unfairly maligned Our Earthly Pleasures, and the jaunty synth-rock of “Risk to Exist” is so stylistically theirs that it’s hard to imagine how any younger contemporary band could mimic it without acknowledging their influence. The landscape in which they were brought upon may have drastically changed, and it sure has caused Maximo Park to constantly morph into new forms, but they’re aware that it’s in retaining that familiarity that they’ll continue to crack the top 20 on the UK album charts. These well-intentioned rallying cries state their case with tasteful finesse, even if it could’ve used more of the firebrand glee of their past work.