The Maccabees: Given to the Wild – review


Over the holidays, John Lennon and Paul McCartney beamed out from the NME's cover, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' failed audition for Decca Records. Inside, a bold analogy was drawn: anyone who suggests the commercial state of British alternative rock is currently parlous (perhaps citing that only one even vaguely alternative artist made the top 100 selling singles of the year and that was Noah and the Whale) is as hopelessly misguided as Dick Rowe, the executive who turned the Beatles down. We are, in fact, living through "a glorious time when rock'n'roll proves the doubters wrong".

Alas, the evidence it amassed to support this claim seemed a little shy of watertight. There was the success of the Vaccines, some baffling stuff about how Bombay Bicycle Club "stole the summer" – you doubtless noticed Adele and Ed Sheeran tearfully consoling each other as the Crouch End quartet ruthlessly snatched the limelight from them – and the news that "Yuck, Smith Westerns and Iceage were beating at the barricades" ("beating at the barricades" is a technical term used by music journalists to mean "reached No 62 in the album charts for one week"). Hard though it is to imagine, next year apparently looks even brighter. The big hopes seem to be pinned largely on Tribes, with their enticing-sounding "Razorlight-tastic" sound, and Given to the Wild by the Maccabees.

You would be forgiven for thinking that, at this last suggestion, the whiff of desperation emanating from all this finally reached pass-the-breathing-apparatus proportions. Up to this point, the Brighton-based quintet have seemed a solid but wholly unremarkable band. After seven years, two top 30 albums and a headlining date at Brixton Academy, they remain oddly anonymous: would you recognise frontman Orlando Weeks in the street, let alone his bandmates Hugo, Felix, Rupert and Sam? The songwriting on their two albums isn't bad, if you like your ideas preowned: borrowed from the Futureheads on their debut Colour It In, Arcade Fire on 2009's Wall of Arms.

And yet, even in the real world, where Yuck aren't beating at the barricades, and the summer remained safe from the recidivist activities of Bombay Bicycle Club, there's an unexpected degree of excitement about Given to the Wild. Their record label – home to Elbow and Snow Patrol, and thus no strangers to the commercial rewards of sticking with a band when others would have knocked it on the head – clearly think it's their breakthrough.

As it plays, you see what they mean, largely because the Maccabbees have hit on a sound that, if it still isn't entirely their own (the lanky shadow of Win Butler still hangs over the melody, massed vocals and lost-innocence-of-childhood lyrical theme of Grew Up at Midnight), isn't obviously anyone else's either, which means their songwriting abilities shine more clearly than before. There are gauzy guitar and keyboard textures, sweeps of echoing feedback, harmonies decorating an oblique vocal style that suggests an acquaintance with Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden. On Glimmer and Forever I've Known, Weeks appears to be mumbling his words directly into the listener's ear. They somehow manage to feel simultaneously grand and intimate, a tough trick to pull off. This is more oblique and intriguing than you might expect from a man who once wrote a song about Latchmere Leisure Centre swimming pool's wave machine that went "Latchmere's got a wave machine".

At its best, Given to the Wild introduces you to a sensation not previously derived from the Maccabees' oeuvre: of songs not really doing what you'd expect. Beneath Child's exquisite, tumbling guitar line and brass arrangement, the drums abruptly shift up a gear, into a rhythm that bears the surprising influence of drum'n'bass: they push the song forward, to an increasingly delirious climax. There's a great moment on Go where the song – driven by a disjointed, juddering drum machine – abruptly stops dead, replaced by one, slowly surging, beatless chord. Then it crashes back into life, racing towards its end: another delirious climax.

It's not a perfect album. The band's audible sense of confidence occasionally gets the better of them. It's too long – there's a brief slump in quality midway through. Heave gets so over-excited about its potential stadium-sized audience that it ends up sounding like Coldplay – which probably won't harm its commercial prospects, but feels a bit disappointing given the far softer, more subtle approach to stirring crowds elsewhere. On the other hand, your head might swell a bit too if you'd come up with a melody as simple, lovely and impermeable as that on Ayla.

You'd be hard-pushed to divine much about the future or otherwise of alternative rock from Given to the Wild: it doesn't sound like evidence of a glorious time when rock'n'roll proves the doubters wrong. It's an album that bucks a trend rather than starts one: an elegant and unexpected leave-taking from the indie landfill.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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