Some of this century’s most acclaimed fiction has dealt in what-if scenarios: Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, say, or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. One can be sure that if rock critics controlled the publishing industry, our nation’s dying bookstores would be filled with overheated, adjectival answers to one of rock history’s most interesting hypotheticals: What if Nirvana never exploded? Surely Buzz Ballads wouldn’t exist; Kurt Cobain might still be alive; and The Vaselines probably wouldn’t be following up their one and only LP, Dum-Dum, 20 years after the fact. (Or, at least, their follow-up wouldn’t be coming out on a label as high-profile as Sub Pop. It was that label’s connection to Nirvana that got them involved with The Vaselines in the first place.)
But then there’s the critical faux-pas of spending most of a Vaselines review talking about Nirvana. There was enough of that last year, when Sub Pop released Enter the Vaselines — what was supposed to be the definitive word on the Glaswegian twosome. So, then, Sex With an X. Album opener “Ruined” begins with about half a minute of what sounds like a distorted children’s music box: The Vaselines in theory. It then launches into some right-out-of-1989 noise, with Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee sing-chanting in unison: The Vaselines, in practice. McKee’s voice may sound exactly like it did 20 years ago (the fate of most twee-pop ladies, it seems), but The Vaselines’ trademark noise has only grown deeper, richer. Listening to this record just feels good on a purely physical level.
And what about the lyrics? Have Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee — who, keep in mind, were roughly half as old as they are now when they made a name for themselves as smut-obsessed, puerile smart-alecks — returned to the scene hardened, weathered, wiser? Have they effected some sort of Wrens-like transformation from jovial noise-poppers to middle-aged miserablists? Not really, no. They still have the same schoolyard attitudes toward religion (“My god’s bigger than your god!”) and sex (“Feels so good, it must be bad for me!”), the latter sentiments made all the creepier by the fact that Kelly is, like, 45 at this point. But could anyone ever have imagined these two making a song as grand and majestic and earnest as “Turning it On”? And even those oft-silly chants have taken on a new sort of poignance: “Hey fat mama, I’m a fat man” at least proves that The Vaselines’ worldview has expanded to encompass its members’ growing waistlines.
The world The Vaselines are re-entering is not very different from the one they left. The noise-pop they got in on the first wave of is seemingly more popular than ever, with bands like Wavves and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart attracting ever-larger audiences. The Vaselines, of course, realize this. It’s the inexplicable fetishization of the ’80s by Millenials that drives hilarious first-MPfree “I Hate the ’80s.” That song, along with nearly every track on this slightly overlong LP (weren’t these two all about brevity?), has the same casual melodicism that defined not only The Vaselines’ earlier output but, also, a generation of likeminded U.K. guitar pop bands seemingly incapable of not writing effortless hooks.
Which, unfortunately, was kind of the problem with a lot of now-anonymous U.K. guitar pop bands — so easygoing as to be entirely unmemorable. The Vaselines had the power of perversion and a certain famous benefactor to keep them in the history books (or at least make them noteworthy enough for their own Wikipedia page, whatever). Nobody is going to write a book about what would happen if The Vaselines never released that second album. It is an inherently unimportant event. Yet that’s never what this sort of modest music was about, anyway.