I’d like to declare a moratorium on the term “return to form”, if only because it gets bandied about like some irrefutable descriptive truth: the sky is blue, that house is yellow, this album is a return to form. While I recognize it’s intended as a flattering compliment to the album and/or band upon which it is bestowed, it’s also a rockist thing to say: “return to form” aims to discredit any experimental detours that obscure the fulfillment of some salad-days ideal, and quite often offers praise to a record that doesn’t exactly deserve it in the first place. The sort of reactionary thinking that places crowns atop records like R.E.M.’s Accelerate would have to define the Beatles’ Let It Be as the very first high-profile return to form, and that’s no example to set for the critically lauded future.
Supergrass is provoking the “return to form” treatment for the release of its sixth studio album, Diamond Hoo Ha, even within its own label’s promotional efforts, and this troubles me. Firstly, the Oxford rock quartet isn’t old enough to be salvaging whatever it is that it supposedly lost along the way — sure, they’ve been around since 1994, when their thrilling debut single “Caught by the Fuzz” was released, but they were barely out of their teens then and are still relatively young for a band that was part of the Britpop class of the 1990s. Secondly, this implies that Supergrass has failed to be itself since the turn of the century, which is patently untrue. The group’s last two albums, Road to Rouen (2005) and Life on Other Planets (2003), pursued bucolic rock and space-glam, respectively, and that willingness to stretch itself around new concepts and eclectic whimsies is what makes an exceptional band.
That said, “Diamond Hoo Ha Man” and “Bad Blood”, the new album’s pair of opening tracks, throw around the kind of foot-to-the-overdrive-pedal punches that Supergrass hasn’t thrown since “Richard III”. Both songs are exactly the sort of blood rushes that define potent rock ‘n’ roll: “Diamond Hoo Ha Man”, with its rudimentary Who riffage and oversexed kink, and “Bad Blood”, a punch-drunk strut with sky-defying imagery (“I don’t believe that man needs God, thank God”), satisfy in the testosterone-hook department. They offer an excuse for drummer Danny Goffey to let his Ringo-meets-Animal fills tumble and singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes to rowdily exclaim “Yeah!” between every other line. (He shouts this roughly 13 times between the two tracks, and if the success of a rock song is directly proportionate to the number of “Yeah!”s peppered within it, I’d say these two are rather successful.) They may not be anything new for Supergrass — this is, after all, ground that the band covered with explosive precision on its 1997 sophomore album, In It for the Money — but still, it’s an undeniable thrill to hear a band kick out its jams with such heroic wit.
Those first two tracks aren’t indicative of Diamond Hoo Ha as a whole. The rest of the album settles into a groove that, while admittedly reliant on fast tempos and ripe tension, is decidedly less hard rock. The Zombies’ psych-pop is at the heart of the blossoming chorus in “The Return of…”, and the faux funk of bands like Talking Heads pulls the strings behind “Rough Knuckles”. Acoustic guitar and shakers accentuate the nervousness of “345”, a song that echoes the aerodynamic whirl of Life on Other Planets even if it doesn’t quite match the infectious pull of that disc’s offerings. “Whiskey & Green Tea”, a fever dream of Stooges sax-skronk freaking and tongue-in-cheek British brass, is an odd but compelling diversion in the record’s more elusive second half, and in effect shakes up what is for all intents and purposes a straight-and-narrow collection of songs.
For all their clearness of purpose, however, the songs do indicate a repeated loss of lucidity. “I always try to walk the line, but I couldn’t see it,” Coombes sings in “345”, and later, in “Rough Knuckles”, he has “lost sight looking for a way out.” Supergrass recorded Diamond Hoo Ha with producer Nick Launay (fresh off recent albums by Grinderman and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) at Hansa in Berlin, best known as the studio where David Bowie made Low and “Heroes”. Just as Road to Rouen was very much a product of the French countryside, Diamond Hoo Ha is a city record through and through: fuzzy and raucous, lit up with neon guitars and drums as crowded as a main urban artery, seedy in thrill and immaculately clean in design. The band stalks this particular terrain, disoriented by noise and movement, dampened by rain or besot by drink, and makes some sense out of it with rock ‘n’ roll — not like it used to, but like it always has.