Scroll down the Wombats’ Spotify page and you come to the section headed “Fans also like”. It features a selection of their mid-00s contemporaries, fellow strivers in the league of what was cruelly dubbed “landfill indie”: the Pigeon Detectives, the Kooks, the Enemy, Scouting for Girls. As everyone knows, fashion is cyclical and this stuff currently lurks at the foot of fortune’s wheel: old enough to seem like yesterday’s news, not old enough to seem appealingly retro. Give it 10 years and they’ll be packing them in at 00s revival festivals, as their Britpop forebears are today, but for now, it’s strictly self-released albums and tours of venues euphemistically described as “intimate”.
By rights, the Wombats should be in the same boat as those bands, more anonymous than their peers (close your eyes and try to visualise frontman Matthew “Murph” Murphy, let alone drummer Dan Haggis), they were dumped by their major label in the same year the NME became a free sheet in the face of slumping sales. But the Wombats’ recent interviews come peppered with unexpected phrases: “their studio in LA”, “forthcoming gig at the O2 Arena” and “produced by Jacknife Lee”, the latter fresh from working with U2. It’s not just that they now play far bigger venues than 15 years ago, it’s that the venues come packed – as every reviewer notes in astonishment – with kids too young to remember the Wombats’ first flush of fame. Last year, their 2015 single Greek Tragedy belatedly went gold in the US: between the original and a subsequent remix by Swedish producer Oliver Nelson in 2020, it’s racked up nearly 175m streams on Spotify.
Greek Tragedy’s success was down to one of those weird TikTok blips that makes memes of unexpected songs, but you can’t fill the O2 Arena from a social media trend. Fix Yourself, Not the World provides some convincing explanations. Their relative anonymity appears to have worked in their favour, allowing them to repurpose their sound from the post-punk guitars of Moving to New York and Let’s Dance to Joy Division to something more pop-facing, without incurring the hysterical reactions provoked by, say, Kaiser Chiefs working with Girls Aloud mastermind Brian Higgins: the Wombats didn’t make enough of a lasting initial impression to be accused of cravenly abandoning their roots. With its guitars tethered to dancefloor-focused drums, bass smoothed with electronics and concluding title track an epic synthy ballad, the Wombats’ polished and snappy fifth album won’t shake anyone with its plethora of unanticipated thrills. However, it sounds resolutely like a product of the 2020s rather than a throwback to scrappier era. The moments where it most obviously recalls the mid-00s are its least successful, the leaden glam stomp of Don’t Poke the Bear a case in point.
More prosaically, the Wombats write noticeably better songs than the current crop of artists who labour under the label “indie”. You can detect a degree of experience in their approach: the pounding opener Flip Me Upside Down and the subtly effective rhythmic shifts of Ready for the High are clearly the work of people who’ve done enough gigs to know what provokes a huge audience to jump up and down. The choruses are bigger and brighter – there’s a particularly great example on This Car Drives All By Itself – while the hooky immediacy of their melodies makes their recent TikTok trendsetter status less of a mystery than first appeared. So do the lyrics. They come unstuck when they feel obliged to tackle big issues – Work Is Easy, Life Is Hard offers a lumpy excoriation of cancel culture – but they’re good at one-liners, as evidenced by the title of If You Ever Leave, I’m Coming With You and its depiction of someone trying to rouse themselves from a melancholy, stoned torpor: “I’ll get out of bed / Stop listening to Radiohead.”
The lyrics also have a tendency to sneer at the dictates of fashion. “Fuck your role play / No construction / I’ll build it my own way: no subscribing, no reviews,” sings Murphy on Method to the Madness. And understandably so. That the Wombats’ gigs are apparently filled with teenagers seems less surprising when you consider that said teenagers are too young to remember a time when music wasn’t accessed via the all-encompassing bran barrel of streaming, or when the music press had any gatekeeping power: the notion of a band being hip or déclassé is more of a moot point than it once was. Fix Yourself, Not the World isn’t going to change the face of music, but nor is it going to do anything to impede the Wombats’ latter-day progress.
• Fix Yourself, Not the World is released on Awal on 14 January.