You know something’s amiss when hipsters cross 14th Street and tourists forgo seeing The Lion King all in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. That was the scene inside the Virgin Megastore at Times Square early January, as the Darkness, England’s latest export, played an in-store performance to a packed crowd at quite possibly the most mainstream spot on earth. If such a cross-mingling of social groups leaves you scratching your head, the Lowestoft, U.K.-bred band’s debut, Permission to Land, will only further your confusion. Everything the Darkness does is open to question: are they the gay AC/DC or the straight Queen? Is this Spinal Tap II or the greatest band of the millennium? Is it just one massive gag? Does it really matter?
There’s no overlooking the blatant odes to hard rock the Darkness is so fond of, from machismo album covers to simplistic lyrics (“Can’t explain all the feelings that you’re making me feel”) that make them seem like a walking joke. Vocalist Justin Hawkins has an upper-crust British accent that seems incongruous with most of the album, except when he talks of his needlework, badminton and bridge club. The squeals and over-the-top flourishes to songs, such as the “Kill me master, kill me!” in “Stuck in a Rut,” only add to the argument that the Darkness is just a bunch of crazy Brits at the tail-end of their 15 minutes.
But despite the temptation to focus on the band’s motives, I couldn’t help but fall for such standout tracks as “Get Your Hands off My Woman” and the single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” By blending hard-hitting guitar riffs with Hawkins’ astonishingly strong, multi-octave voice on these tracks, the Darkness morphs into a heavy metal-pop hybrid that works both in both small bars and big arenas. And although I could spend hours dissecting the much-played “I Believe … ” video and questioning the spandex-clad quartet’s intentions, I would end up missing the actual song, with its overwhelmingly catchy guitar hook and irresistible backing vocals during the chorus. Where’s the thrill in that?
Because that’s what it comes down to: The Darkness remains above the cliched hard rock buffoonery while still reaching out to the lowest denominator, creating music that is enjoyable rather than intellectually stimulating. I haven’t taken a stand on whether or not the bare-chests and falsetto croons are just a facade, but I’d prefer to keep it that way, allowing others to arbitrate while I listen to the music.