It turns out the toughest part of being a band in the post-punk revival isn’t figuring out if you’d like to be the next Joy Division or the next New Order; it’s making an album that even approaches the quality of your debut. Almost without fail, the purveyors of the new wave of British post-punk — the Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, the Futureheads, and Maximo Park — all caught mad hype after one record of taut guitars and syncopated, Morse code drums, but all of them tanked when it came time to record album number two (and three). That hoary cliché of bands having their whole lives to write their debuts and only a few months to write their sophomore album doesn’t really apply here (and is mostly bunk anyway) because time isn’t the problem, ambition is. These guys drop a great debut, then blow out their sound to epic size on their second album, trying to maximize the sing-along potential, get their songs on the radio, and make music that means something, man.
Like all their peers, but especially Bloc Party, Maximo Park followed up their splendid debut, A Certain Trigger, with a mixed-bag album, Our Earthly Pleasures, that was heavy on the languid, mid-tempo ballads and light on basically everything that made the band endearing in the first place. Now Maximo Park are back with Quicken the Heart, an album that goes a long way to reclaiming the Newcastle band’s status as the unlikely heroes of the scene.
While A Certain Trigger was charming largely due to Paul Epworth’s claustrophobic production (and Our Earthly Pleasures was rough because of Gil Norton’s), Quicken the Heart benefits from the glittery new-wave-cum-disco production of Nick Launay, the likes of which he perfected on the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. Opener “Wraithlike,” with its dry drums, churning guitars, and spaced-out chorus complete with siren-calling synths, sets the tempo for the rest of the record. Lead singer Paul Smith moves frontward as the star in a bigger way here; his lyrics are actually almost 100 percent intelligible, a fact he acknowledges in the album’s first line, singing, “Here’s a song that finally you can understand.”
Quicken the Heart features a (partial) recommitment to the jittery groove the band had dialed in and perfected early on. “Roller Disco Dreams” is a bug-eyed epic, sprawling out from its nervous guitar riff to a fist-pumpier while somehow maintaining the high-wire tension that fuels the song’s opening. Early highlight “The Penultimate Clinch” rips a bass line from the best Joy Division song never recorded, and has guitars that make the signifier “angular” cliché. And despite having some of the least romantic come-ons in the history of songs about boning, “Let’s Get Clinical” has all the instruments plucking out their own sparse rhythms until a sweetly rushing melody takes form underneath.
But Quicken the Heart isn’t a complete excising of the shoot for the rafters move Maximo Park pulled on Our Earthly Pleasures. Would-be anthem and undemanding first single “The Kids Are Sick Again” is exactly the type of song that will get played on Radio 1 and cause Glastonbury attendees to become tumescent, but it deals in broad platitudes about being bored and trades cohesion for a group shout-along. Same goes for ska-ish closer “I Haven’t Seen Her in Ages,” which features an abhorrent “she ripped me to shreds” refrain, and the teeth-grinding crusher “In Another World (You’d Have Found Yourself By Now).”
Throughout the course of Quicken the Heart, Maximo Park prove they still haven’t rectified their quivering post-punk with the anthems they are concurrently and desperately trying to craft. But despite that conflict, they can still occasionally pull it together long enough to bang out some good ones.