The Courteeners: More. Again. Forever. review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Ignition)
Without abandoning the well-executed anthemics that form the basis of their success, the Manchester band’s sixth album weighs in on the subjects of ageing, alcohol and mental health

Just before Christmas, the Official Charts Company published the Top 100 biggest-selling singles and albums of the 2010s. If you needed evidence of the commercial collapse of British alt-rock, there it was, in stark figures. The most successful song of the last decade in the genre once called indie was Mr Brightside by the Killers, a single that was actually released 16 years ago, followed by Oasis’s Wonderwall, a song ready to celebrate its silver jubilee. Amid the pop stars and heritage rockers on the album chart, meanwhile, only the Arctic Monkeys, out of all the kind of artists who used to be the NME’s lifeblood, made a showing: an entire genre, once huge, reduced to one band.

The artwork for More. Again. Forever.
The artwork for More. Again. Forever. Photograph: PR Handout

Given this climate, there is something intriguing about the continued success of Manchester indie hold-outs Courteeners. Even if their albums don’t sell enough to challenge Adele or Ed Sheeran, they consistently go gold, and their live shows are the stuff of arenas, sports stadiums and 50,000-tickets-sold-in-four-hours outdoor events. For a band that big, though, Courteeners’ media profile remains low. Cheerleaders are hard to find, and their album reviews invariably stick at fair-to-middling. To their detractors, their success is a matter of being in the right place at the wrong time: if your idea of a good time is bellowing along to old-fashioned anthemic alt-rock and you’re unconvinced by the 1975’s drift towards mainstream pop, there isn’t really anyone else currently servicing your needs. To their supporters, they’re a wronged band, the pervasive assumption that they’re knuckle-dragging purveyors of bloke rock hiding something more thoughtful and interesting.

Which brings us to More. Again. Forever. Although you’re never going to mistake its contents for the new album by Black Midi, it’s certainly a more ambitious undertaking than your average Radio X-friendly artist could be bothered with. Liam Gallagher may yet startle us all by releasing a conceptual work about the complex and fraught relationship with alcohol that ageing brings, complete with spoken-word passages and accompanying short story by an acclaimed young novelist (in Courteneers’ case, Emma Jane Unsworth, whose 2014 novel Animals covers roughly the same emotional territory as More. Again. Forever.). But it’s probably best not to hold your breath.

Frontman Liam Fray’s lyrical thoughts on the subject are of a decidedly mixed quality. He has a penchant for dropping clumsy pop-cultural references with a resounding clang (“Where’s our next Caroline Aherne?”; “I don’t love you enough for my last Rolo”) and an occasional tendency towards Noel-in-philosophical-mode malaproprisms (“burn the midnight oil at both ends”). But he’s also capable of fresher takes and impressively snappy lines: “All we do is go to parties and talk about parties we used to go to” is a neat summing-up of thirtysomething ennui. Better Man and Is Heaven Even Worth It? note that the barrage of available wellness advice can be as bad for your self-esteem as photos of unattainable physical perfection; that if you’re not making “gratitude lists”, regularly meditating and enjoying a plant-based diet, you’re somehow failing. Take It on the Chin has him telling all to a therapist while “sliding down … the chair” in embarrassment, haunted by the thought that this really isn’t the way that men, particularly northern men, are supposed to behave, and imagining his “archaic Uncle Anthony” looking on aghast.

Courteeners: Better Man – video

The music, too, presents a mixed bag. Advance talk of the album’s supposed adventurousness may tell you a little less about its contents than the limited palette with which artists in Courteeners’ particular niche are expected to work. You’re listening to a band attempting to push the boat out without scaring anyone off, hence the profusion of some pretty commonplace stuff: piano-ballad-into-singalong-chorus; radio-friendly, REM-ish mid-tempo jangle; AM-era Arctic Monkeys riffing. Its best moments come when it throws caution to the wind, at least relatively speaking: the electro-glam stomp of Heart Attack, the LCD Soundsystem-ish title track; the house-y pulse of Previous Parties. It’s hard not to wish they’d do it more often, although it would be churlish to deny that even the standard-issue tracks are really well-executed. Heavy Jacket, for instance, certainly isn’t telling you anything you haven’t heard already, but its jump-cuts from distorted guitar anthemics to sitar-heavy cod-psychedelic pop are seamless.

“The gatekeepers are less than kind,” sings Fray at one point, with the air of a man who knows that Courteeners’ critical lot is unlikely to change, six albums into their career. You can understand his frustration: if he’s not an overlooked genius, on the evidence of More. Again. Forever., he’s a smarter and more insightful lyricist than he gets credit for. But then the album is solid and dependable, rather than a source of head-spinning shocks and thrills: it knows its audience, and it knows better than to confound them if you want to keep bucking trends and filling arenas.

This week Alexis listened to

Leyla Blue – Peppa Pig


Smart, funny bedroom pop by way of lo-fi R&B, complete with shout-outs to both Missy Elliott and, frequently, the porcine cartoon character of the title.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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