In John Smith’s 1987 short film The Black Tower, a nameless man is haunted by the sight of the uncanny looking building. The tower seems to follow the narrator, popping up in his neighbourhood, by his workplace and on a prison ground. One night, the narrator dreams of finding himself imprisoned within the tower’s black walls, caught in inescapable darkness. The tower finally closes in, and after social isolation, psychosis and hospitalization, the narrator comes across the structure during a countryside visit. From up close, the tower “shows signs of age and decay which had been indistinguishable at a distance.” He enters the building and meets his fate. Smith uses industrial architecture to create a paranormal metaphor for the dilapidated state of Thatcher-era Britain. Given that most of punk – and post-punk – culture was born by the impotent frustration with the decaying state of Britain’s social and architectural infrastructure, it’s not a unique work, but its mix of kitchen sink madness with monstrous liminal structures visualized the sounds of PiL, This Heat, Killing Joke and Magazine. The walls and buildings have come to eat what is left of disoriented minds.
Thatcher is long dead, but the monstrosity of British decay lives on. Brexit got done, throwing the country into economical turmoil, all the while the Coronavirus and lack of policy making has destroyed the kingdom’s music scene. Rent and food prices are still exceptionally high. Take it from somebody who’s had to live off of Tesco meal deals for breakfast: Britain is anxious again, explaining the recent rise of dark and ambitious post-punk bands Shame, Black Country New Road and Black Midi.
Within this darkness, another Smith (Paul – unrelated to John) is emerging like a zombie, his mouth agape and skin flaking off, rising from the waters of the River Tyne – or at least that’s what Laura Lancaster’s painted cover of Maximo Park’s new album Nature Always Wins looks like. A cross between Francis Bacon and Edvard Munch, it incites flashbacks to Manic Street Preachers’ use of Jenny Saville’s paintings as covers. It is both an exciting and horrifying omen of the music inside. Behold: after 15 years, Maximo Park have managed to make an album as good as their debut!
The indie-era survivors did already have one unlikely return to form a few years ago with 2014’s Too Much Information. Following the iconic debut and three records of polite mixed-outcome post-punk, that album’s dark mix of early Ultravox and The Smiths was the first to come close to the angular scrapped material for their second album (shards of which surfaced in the form of Our Earthly Pleasures B-sides). Sadly, the album ended up underrated and underheard. Its stylish follow-up Risk to Exist – produced by Real Estate, Ryan Adams and Wilco producer Tom Schick – lacked charisma, and ended up a little tame.
Aiming high this time around, the Newcastle based trio (reduced by two members) enlisted American producer Ben H. Allen, the man behind a whole host of iconic masterpieces (Halcyon Digest, Merriweather Post Pavillion, Within and Without, Vega INTL. Night School). It’s an investment that paid off. These guitar-centric rock songs are sharp and punchy, with highlights including the Paul McCartney-flavoured “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”, “Placeholder” with it’s The Smiths-via-Lockett Pundt riff, and the instantly memorable “Versions of You”, which would have fit well on A Certain Trigger. Contrasting with that, emerald synth-tones provide a hint of aristocratic pathos that is offset by slight distortion: “All of Me”, a love song with a slightly revolutionary undertone, goes for a sinister variant of “The Final Countdown”, while “Meeting Up” returns to the dark climate of Ultravox’s Vienna and Pulp’s Different Class.
“Meeting Up” also proves Smith is delivering some of his best works as a lyricist here: “The late laughter of the lonely / Echoes through renovated hallways / In a town that I thought / I had forgotten / Where the hairdressers’ names / Are not their real names / The prefabricated buildings / Are bound to outlive me.” Somewhere between art school anger and working class melancholy, the singer manages to construct images of decay that feel undistorted and unfiltered, characterizing a mode of British living that is far from pop-cultural clichés. Like the Black Tower in the film of his namesake, Paul Smith’s prefabricated buildings, forgotten towns, and closed libraries become monstrous ghosts in a haunted land. These façades directly relate to individuals: “Why Must A Building Burn” asks “Do you need a flag / To know who you are? / Did you get intentionally left behind?”, before ruminating on the subject’s smiling face – nationalist fervor hiding behind politeness; Brexit the consequence of long-held prejudices.
Nature Always Wins‘ last tracks could be the best here. Indie rock mini-anthem “The Acid Remark” takes two minutes to snake itself into a glorious climax about an unfortunate romantic encounter in a German town (notice the contrast to Britain), then dips into a reggae-like rhythm and ends on the climactic refrain with singalong lines. It’s up there with “The Coast is Always Changing” when it comes to anthemic Brit-pop.
The album’s definitive statement comes in the closer, “Child of the Flatlands”, where Smith describes a landscape that is slowly abandoned and assimilated by an apocalyptic nature: “The horses bolting / The islands revolting / In a bottle they swirl / The old world is clinging to the coattail.” The libraries are closing down, while the last one to turn off the lights remains ambiguous, with old and young exchanging places in the refrain: “Nature always wins.”
It’s funny, but there’s few British albums that manage to capture the anxiety surrounding the Johnson/Brexit era this well. That’s because British indie rock’s great Achilles’ Heel was always its reliance on Sturm & Drang, with stories of adolescent heartbreak and the anxieties of urban work schedules dominating. As audiences and musicians got older, their concerns became echoes of the past. The lucky ones – like The Horrors and These New Puritans – used their intellect to frame their songs as modern art.
The unlucky ones faded away. The Rakes sadly disintegrated after three flawless albums. Bloc Party struggled with self-referential guilt complexes and became a skeleton. The Kaiser Chiefs reworked the same old Brit-pop tropes, and Franz Ferdinand stagnated until they had lost their identity within their signature sound.
Maximo Park almost shared the fate of irrelevance. I couldn’t name a memorable track or line off of Quicken the Heart or The National Health, but I don’t think there’s a bad song on Nature Always Wins: every possible moment is used to fit in new ideas, to alter a guitar sound, reframe a synthesizer or deliver Smith’s excellent, often heartbreaking lines. Allen’s production is three-dimensional and the melodies are infectuous. Yes, it’s a more mature album than those initial shots that audiences lost their minds and virginities to from 2004 to 2007. But it’s also a rich, passionate and clever album that, even if it ends up being underrated, deserves full attention and praise. Like Smith’s Black Tower, it will follow those who notice it until it’s finally embraced as part of national consciousness.