Screw the Oscars curse. The Mercury Prize, Britiain’s most respected music award, is the real career-killer disguised as a watershed moment in a band’s career. The list of past winners and snubs at times reads like high comedy. M People over Parklife? Roni Size/Reprazent over OK Computer? Yet, with the case of Gomez, the repercussions of their 1998 Mercury Prize for their debut, Bring It On, are more tragedy than farce. Bring It On was by no means as original influential or beloved as runners up Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or even the Verve’s Urban Hymns, but it was one of the most perfect simple blues-inspired pop albums of the 1990s. Gomez’s strongest influence was always the Beatles, which makes it a tough sell to any music snob. They disgusted some even further by covering “Getting Better” for the first generation of HDTV ads, years before Modest Mouse made licensing songs acceptable with the “ethics vs. rent money” argument.
In fact, the backlash to the award overshadowed what would become one of the more solid, quick-witted, and occasionally transcendent indie-rock catalogs of the last 15 years. Every subsequent album the band released met intensely divided critical reception between those who treated them as a beautiful sweet little blues band and those who still held a grudge over 1998, even as far down the line as How We Operate in 2006. In reviewing 2002’s In Our Gun, Pitchfork’s Eric Carr responded to the band’s “hype” (revolving almost entirely around the Mercury Prize) by calling the band the Blink 182 of blues, a mislabeling that cost Gomez a decade’s worth of American indie fans.
Gomez’s albums have been a series of tactical evasions of backlash. Gomez never accomplished that goal, but in the process, they created a catalog that arguably surpasses Spoon as the best in indie pop of the past decade. Suffice to say, it’s hard to see anyone in Gomez having much sympathy for Vampire Weekend. They’ve basically been going through a decade-long version of the VW syndrome.
When all else fails to build an American audience, there are TV and movie soundtracks. After contributions to the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack, The Hitcher remake, and The Ritches, Gomez seems poised for a breakout with A New Tide, critics holding an 11-year-old grudge be damned. Just to make sure that previously clueless fans give them some indie respect, the band is co-producing A New Tide with Chicago’s Brian Deck, whose previous work includes indie dandies Califone, Iron & Wine and Modest Mouse (and, yes, the Counting Crows).
Sadly, I cannot say much positive about A New Tide. It may be the weakest album in their catalog, and my arbitrary numerical ranking will not be doing the band any favors on Metacritic. My recommendation: Give each Gomez Metacritic ranking at least five points extra credit to correct for the embittered.
Gomez has rarely been a high-energy band (2004’s Split the Difference being the most notable exception), but they’ve never been boring until A New Tide. Opener “Mix” is the most soporific of the bunch, and a dull opener does nothing but poison an album. There’s a nauseating, uninspired vocal bounce to Tom Gray's Lennon/Cobain hybrid vocals in “If You Ask Nicely,” and that effort is no less turgidly matched by Ben Ottwell’s McCartney/Vedder hybrid vocals in “Bone Tired.”
The vicious irony of A New Tide is how much Gomez lyrics self-consciously exemplify their frustration with being misunderstood, a theme that clashes notably with the expectations of A New Tide finally being the band’s American breakthrough. Gomez vents on their lack of perceived coolness in the aptly named “Win Park Slope,” and while “Bone Tired” is a clunker, it shows a band that’s been great for years but has lost its will to try to impress. Particularly frustrating is that these songs about fame are mixed with a handful that rank up with Gomez’s best. There’s a barnstormer in “Airstream Driver,” followed by the soulful “Natural Reaction,” which speaks to how the anxieties of Gomez’s waiting for the fame they were promised 10 years ago has made them neurotic messes.
If A New Tide has a thesis statement, it comes in “Little Pieces,” featuring the lyric “Part of you that wants to fight/ But I never really had the appetite.” Between licensing songs up the Wazoo, opening for Dave Matthews Band and signing to Dave Matthews’s label after getting booted from Virgin, it seems the members of Gomez have given up on gaining the critical respect they’ve deserved for years. Instead, they’ve turned into the bland adult-alternative band people blinded by an 11-year-old award have always mistaken them for. Hope you’re happy, haters.