Album Review: The Snuts – W.L.

[Parlophone; 2021]

In 2007, a wee band from Dundee, Scotland, burst onto the scene, seemingly from nowhere: full of insouciance and swagger, their debut album Hats Off to the Buskers topped the UK album charts and was nominated for that year’s Mercury Prize. Songs like “Superstar Tradesmen”, “Wasted Little DJs”, and “Same Jeans” were hooky, confident and spoke of personal subjects from the distinctive place that the band grew up; it’s no small exaggeration to say that The View’s impact on Dundee was momentous, marking it as a contemporary city of cool (it now hosts the only V&A Museum outside of London as part of a regenerated waterfront, intriguingly).

In 2021, a wee band from Scotland again, this time The Snuts, became the first from the country since The View’s debut to top the UK charts with their record, W.L.. Yet, where Hats Off to the Buskers captured attention with its lyrical specificity and laidback cockiness, The Snuts aim for inane generality in the hopes of satisfying the masses; that they’ve achieved this feat is an indictment, not a compliment.

After the release of their album, The Snuts were extremely active on social media promoting their chase for number one in the album charts. Vocal support from sentimental crooner and future TV comedy show panellist Lewis Capaldi – also from Whitburn and a close friend of the band – and Tennent’s Lager appeared on their Twitter. The band themselves put up a clip of William Wallace’s freedom speech from Braveheart. The message was clear: they were representing Scotland in this chart battle. The mentality came across as distinctly small-town though, that there could be no question of their artistic credentials or musical quality in the endeavour. Scotland and its history of music is far too rich to be so nullifying in such limitations (a caveat: this writer is from Glasgow before any accusatorial fingers are raised in fury). The four-piece hail from Whitburn, West Lothian and it’s why their album is titled with the initials W.L.; yet the album’s cover is a picture of a street in the city centre of Glasgow and they devote a song to that city in the collection. While it’s entirely fine to focus on several places at once, the intense contradiction between album title and cover feels odd at the very least.

“Top Deck” opens the album in muted colours. Frontman Jack Cochrane – who looks like someone cosplaying as a member of The Kooks for Halloween – immediately copies his friend Capaldi’s overly-affected way of singing. Whether it’s on sparse acoustic ballads like “No Place I’d Rather Go” or the foot-stomping freneticism of tracks like “Coffee & Cigarettes” or “All Your Friends” – these are the dual palettes that The Snuts usually dive between, light melancholy and rampant triumph – he feels every word he sings, emoting hard. There is no trace of a Scottish accent, his delivery whiningly homogenised.

One of the songs on W.L. is named after Juan Belmonte: a famous Spanish bullfighter, he took part in a record number of bullfights and the mystique surrounding his death by suicide is legendary. If The Snuts were trying to align themselves with the bravery of a figure like Belmonte, they’re woefully mistaken, for this album is play-it-safe indie rock. “Always” is scuzzy, with piercing tinny guitars. “Maybe California” is a poor pastiche of breezy Beach Boys pop. The production was handled by Tony Hoffer, who notably also produced fellow Scottish indie rockers The Fratellis’ seminal 2006 record Costello Music; perhaps this is why the quality often sounds achingly retro, a leftover from the indie landfill period.

Lyrical clichés abound. “My brown eyed girl” is called upon several times during “Always”. On “All Your Friends”, Cochrane mentions drugs, singing “And all your friends got that cocaine on their faces,” which sounds like an adolescent’s lyrical conception of drug-taking.

When they really let themselves down is on the sappiest songs. “Somebody Loves You” is the sort of syrupy pandering expected more from Maroon 5 or Justin Timberlake: “It’s a lovely day, rain clears from my feet again” and “Somebody loves you, yeah, and that’s all I’ll say” are some of the most wince-inducing lines. “Glasgow” tries tremendously hard – to the point that it almost becomes impressive – to be a rousing and anthemic tug at the heartstrings, complete with soaring chorus and smashing guitar solo; at one point, Cochrane sings “the big bad city,” which is songwriting of high school quality. It all feels forcibly contrived, vaguely inspiring for the un-vaguely uninspired (these songs will inevitably soundtrack a scene on Love Island in the future).

Their guitar antecedents are everywhere. “All Your Friends” has the kicking bassline of Favourite Worst Nightmare-era Arctic Monkeys; more often, their whining vocals and staid guitar riffs recall someone like Blossoms or Catfish and the Bottlemen. “Don’t Forget It (Punk)” is an unnecessary riposte to punk, Cochrane getting in jibes about other cooler (and much better) bands while maintaining that he’s “bringing the funk.” As he cries “Don’t forget it I’m the king of the spot / A racecar driver and I lead at the top,” he clearly values himself as the underdog but comes across as preening and sour instead; certainly when the bands of the recent British post-punk revival are making far more intelligent guitar music than his own band, Cochrane would be wise to tread carefully.

Another caveat: “We want to connect on a deeper level,” the band recently told NME, and this is undeniably something that they’ve done. “Somebody Loves You” may be mawkish but profits from it went to the Scottish Refugee Council; some of those helped by the income featured in the well-meaning music video for the song. “Glasgow” will inevitably be passionately bellowed by thousands of festival goers at the city’s TRNSMT. Watching them perform at that festival in 2019, they look like four sincere local lads who just won a competition to play on the stage and it’s difficult not to feel goodwill towards them; at the very least, you’d rather see plucky upstarts like them get a number one album than a megastar like Demi Lovato.