Album Review: Yard Act – The Overload

[Island; 2022]

If first impressions hold any merit, Leeds-based outfit Yard Act tick off all the boxes within this increasingly tiresome trend of bile-spitting The Fall mockups. Personally, I’ve had my fill of overwrought snark fests sprawling across a tapestry of gaunt melodies and splintered grooves.

But as a slightly older band hitting their stride, who have already ticked off many firsts in previous outfits (Menace Beach, Post War Glamour Girls), Yard Act seem naturally apprehensive of the self-satisfied doomin’-and-gloomin’ that plagues about 90% of go-getters riding this particular wave. Encouragingly enough, they appear to quickly recognize that the ‘medieval soapbox speaker’-mode might be a self-defeating quest. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to act out all these modern troubles like some twisted car park theater play.

The band’s debut LP The Overload is both moderately entertaining and maddeningly bloated, depending on the moment. Frequently, Yard Act summon the puzzling feeling of looking at one of those overblown Where Is Waldo?-illustrations with someone dryly remarking over your shoulder: “What’s going on here, mate?” I guess in that respect, the album does live up to its name. Like any creative soul who fancies some intricate world-building, Yard Act demand the listener to immediately break out the magnifying glass to fully appreciate the content unfurling before them.

Once you look closer, you’ll discover a panoramic web of protagonists, lost souls, and antagonists rubbing elbows in the grand chaotic, clusterfucked scheme of human existence. Most of them appear completely oblivious, whether they themselves realize it or not. “The Incident” chases frontman James Smith’s quippy diatribe through the O’ Malley-frames of your typical would-be Gordon Gekko-business mogul archetype. “Quarantine Sticks”, alternately, gives an account by the slick trickster slipping through the loopholes of mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Though it’s admirable to see a band reaching for a different, more nuanced wavelength to reflect the bleak post-Brexit zeitgeist, I often found myself tuning the words out instead of pricking up the ears. And honestly, I don’t know whether that’s my own cynicism or simply the byproduct of the information overload that fellow metropolitans are subjected to daily.

Even the most radical statements end up sounding platitudinal within the endless pink-chicken nugget slosh of newsfeed terminologies. And, similarly, Yard Act’s insistence on trying to say well, a lot, sometimes gets in the way of making themselves fully understood. That being said, Yard Act’s wry character sketches – even with the present danger of slipping into the stereotypical – feel for the most part magnanimous and winsome. Like a treacherous game of whack-a-mole, the band make a concentrated effort to find that vein of truth within those rapid-fire punchlines. 

At the very least, that kind of pluckiness has to be admired. Why not just swing for the fences and see what thickens the fabric between polarizing opinions and ideals? Smith often emanates the world-weariness of a jaded school teacher loosening his tie and skipping the damn curriculum for some realness, even if he does end up preaching to the choir. 

Sonically speaking, The Overload is just as restless to carry these verbal volleys in a useful way. “Dead Horse” adapts the groove-leaning DNA of Happy Mondays, Franz Ferdinand, and Talking Heads. “Witness” dives alertly in that sweet intermediate zone between Sleaford Mods and zeroes-indie rock mayflies such as The Rakes or The Automatic. At specific moments, Yard Act flirt with the endearing camp of Pulp or Beck, as Smith seems to share the latter’s dorky escapades into hip-hop (which is apparent on the aforementioned “Dead Horse”).

Indeed, The Overload has enough interesting touchstones, but unfortunately, how Yard Act aim to utilize them within their songwriting MO is still a bit of a jumble. Many of the sounds and textures don’t really add much expressive gusto to Smith’s thespian qualities, and I feel the group can cover a lot of ground here on upcoming releases. 

Furthermore, Yard Act are often at their most generous and brilliant when they choose to drop the Punch-and-Judying. On “Tall Poppies”, for example, the band ties all the loose narrative ends together into a more universal gesture: Smith’s chronicle of a small-town ex-footballer turned real estate agent transforms halfway into an open-hearted eulogy. It’s coupe de grace lands in an existential stalemate: “So many of us just crabs in a barrel / With no feasible means to escape the inevitable cull.”

The whole thing catches the listener off-guard, using fiction as a call for empathy rather than condescension. “Tall Poppies” is a song that encourages the listener to ask their own questions, instead of smugly spoonfeeding all the answers on how we all should be doing ‘our part’. It’s premise reminded me of this oft-shared Guardian article about an ardent vaccine-denier, and how there are often more complex layers to the story than the skin-deep brands we heedless peg people with… no matter which side you’re on.

“100% Endurance” tells the tale of someone waking up with a hangover discovering the existence of aliens, treating this life-altering revelation with the same faux pas-enthusiasm as the latest Kardashian tabloid drama. It paints a situation that feels both surreal and common, and in an age where satire and reality seem to become more interchangeable, that’s quite a feat. The song seems to head-fake the listener into an omniscient dread – that is until Smith’s character marvels that these aliens turn out to be just as contradictory, conflicted beings as us: sometimes unbelievably misguided, sometimes capable of well-meaning gestures. All that you ever needed to exist has always been within you / give me some of the good stuff, that human spirit”. It’s a moment that feels especially crystallized and hard-won. To speak for myself, after drowning in The Overload’s labored sense of bluster, this final act feels worth the trouble.

It’s quite funny that Yard Act’s talent for zingers almost feels like a crutch on The Overload. Whenever the band abandons the impulse to over-elucidate, the record’s most sincere songwriting meanders out of the woodwork like the most awkward of I love you’s. Anyone deeply engrossed with some form of creativity can probably attest that those rare moments of illumination can only happen after plodding through a continuous slog; Yard Act’s first album strikes me as an honest delineation of that.

If there is one redemptive element The Overload highlights, it’s our potential to relate to one another, if even for only a brief moment before stumbling back into mutual estrangement. And no matter what else gets lost in translation, on some days, that brings more comfort and hope than anything. “We collide with each other, we submit, we bare our teeth.”