Sure, any band that made its debut in the past five years is fully aware of the danger of album number two. Devoted fans and A&R reps alike shake in their boots, hoping the album won’t be a point-on fuck-up. This is the zero hour, sink or swim. And judgment day has come in the mysterious case of British Sea Power, whose 2003 debut, The Decline of British Sea Power, set them up nicely for the fall. That record diverged from expectations from track to track, giving us the frenzy of “Apologies to Insect Life” as well as the dreary slow-burner “Heavenly Waters.” This range was punctuated by World War I stage costumes and sly references to Russian literature. Though intriguing, those and other eccentricities left me sighing, thinking of Clinic’s tepid follow-ups to its acclaimed 2000 debut, Internal Wrangler.
Open Season effectively pulls the carpet out from under any expectations, recreating British Sea Power as yet another ‘80s-Brit-rock-throwback team. But the band gets it all right, and in the end gains further accessibility. It becomes clear after the record’s first four tracks, which are excellent, that guitar rock is now the name of their game and that Echo and the Bunnymen are now their major name-check. Opener “It Ended on An Oily Stage” is all Ian McCulloch’s breathy vocals and swirling guitars. Singer Yan (the members keep their surnames secret) has a voice that can sound like McCulloch, Bowie and Neil Diamond in the same verse. It’s an attribute that, alongside the band’s mostly calm, catchy hooks underneath their occasionally odd topics (“Oh, Larsen B,” for example, odes to the band’s “favorite foremost coastal Antarctic shelf”), gives this record its potency.
But within British Sea Power’s solution to the sophomore slump is the major trouble. Aside from the occasional electric burst, like on album highlight “How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?,” this is a polished and quieter, tamer and somewhat more boring British Sea Power. Some tracks don’t work at all and feel forced (see “Please Stand Up”), but there’s consistency and certainly enough charm (see “To Get to Sleep”). Open Season is a lush, very good record. But given that it was British Sea Power’s aloofness that made the band exciting and captured any attention to begin with, I hope this fixation with the subdued is now covered ground.