I’m probably among the minority of Vaccines fans in that the band’s previous album, 2015’s English Graffiti, was actually my favourite of their work. I loved the experimentation with electronics, the jittery and robotic guitar riffs, and the move towards a poppier and more glam sound.
It’s somewhat sad for me, then, to see the fans and even the band themselves rather disavow that era. Combat Sports has been heralded in some circles as “a return to form” and has been described by the band as a back to basics effort. My instinct was that I might be underwhelmed by the record, or maybe find it a bit boring. Fortunately, this has very much not been the case.
On Combat Sports, we find the Vaccines almost perfecting their skills of songcraft. The album opens with Put It On a T-Shirt and I Can’t Quit, both of which are upbeat, gritty indie rock tracks that might have conquered the nation had they been released in the mid-noughties peak of indie. Your Love Is My Favourite Band is perhaps the closest of anything on the album to my beloved English Graffiti, featuring some poppy flirtations while still maintaining the album’s more raw garage rock esque tone. Young American fits the bill of the traditional “slow alternative love song”, but still manages to be impressively well crafted, and adds a lighter and softer feel to an record that would otherwise be nothing but relentless energy. The closing few tracks seem to lose a bit of the edge contained in the first half of the album, with the exception of Nightclub – maybe the heaviest and rockiest of all – and Out on the Street – a song so melodic it might not leave your head for days.
The flaw of this album is, as I expected, its over-reliance on indie rock tropes and its big focus on “returning to the band’s roots” at the cost of trying out something new. But it is still hard to find much fault with the songs we have been given. This is the Vaccines, maybe not at their peak of innovation, but arguably at their peak of songwriting prowess. This is the album that seeks to buck the trend and prove that the indie boys are still in the game, and for that reason, it will find some truly vehement fans in the British alternative music scene.
Individual Rating: 4/5
Picks: Your Love Is My Favourite Band, Out on the Street, Put It On a T-Shirt, Maybe (Luck of the Draw)
Returning with their fourth studio album, The Vaccines may well have released their most consistent, developed and colourful album yet. Their previous album, English Graffiti, was leaps away from the older Vaccines sound and for me it also felt slightly pretentious in places. Combat Sports on the other hand is 33 minutes of indie-rock/pop fun, marking a return to the bliss familiarity of their older days with a veneer of maturity lifting their latest to the next level.
By ever so slightly drifting away from the rigid electric guitar dance-floor formula they are synonymous with, Combat Sports has a smooth richness to it, with a more serious undertone to the overall sound. This isn’t a bad thing, nor do I mean this to degrade their older stuff, What Did You Expect is an album that holds a soft spot in my heart, but a song like Young American comparatively feels like a more sincerely produced version of Somebody Else’s Child. Perhaps this is just me, but the overall sound here feels far more polished without sounding pretentious or dull.
The more ‘party’ orientated tracks also feel much tighter and present a greater breadth in comparison to the first two albums. Out On The Street for examples combines a raw punkish sound with a jangly pop tone; this might sound entirely conflicting but the result is really funky. This can also be said of the following track, one of my favourites from the album, Take It Easy. Shimmering is perhaps the best adjective to apply not just to this song but the album in general with the sun-drenched chorus alone encapsulating the albums no-frills, chilled feel ‘why work hard when you can take it easy’. This is why Combat Sports works so well. The Vaccines aren’t trying to be something they’re not. Nothing sounds forced or over done, it all sounds fresh, natural and exciting.
Combat Sports has got me excited again for indie-rock. I was on a path of apathy with some recent releases being underwhelming, or at least not what I wanted. But this has exceeded my expectations by far, especially as the successor to the rather flat English Graffiti. This is easily one of the better albums to fit under the allusive umbrella of indie-garage-punk-surf-rock, especially when considering more recent releases. Not only have The Vaccines restated themselves as a band with an identity in this album, they’ve pumped a breath of fresh air into a stagnant scene.
Picks: Someone To Lose, Take It Easy, I Can’t Quit
The gradual release of the singles and eventually the album: Combat Sports has sound-tracked a period of personal emotional turbulence for me. I won’t bore you with the details but one thing has remained constant throughout all the chaos: the languorous drawl of Justin Hayward-Young does indeed make me want to go surfing in the sky.
The album gets off to a blinding start with Put It On A T-Shirt. A beautifully world-weary tune, it’s the sound of someone mentally taking stock when a friend from the past asks how they’re keeping. The instrumentation is pared back with the odd bubbly riff percolating Young’s exhausted vocals. The low-key guitars and the relative emotionlessness of his voice spotlight the lyrics conjuring vivid images of duality like climbing mountains in patent leather shoes and rejecting the hand of God for a lover’s help in making tough choices.
The Vaccines first album is dearly beloved, I thoroughly enjoyed Come of Age too, so when it came to English Graffiti I was really excited. To say I was disappointed would be unfair, but although I liked it it wasn’t really what I expected from The Vaccines. It was weirdly poppy and seemed lacking in the angsty defiance that courses through much of their early material.
Combat Sports however is a brilliant synthesis of the poppy, fuzzed up frivolity of English Graffiti and the middle-class anguish of What Did You Expect. On one hand there is Nightclub, a whirlwind of garage rock intensity that celebrates the excitement of nightlife… “it makes my head feel like a nightclub!”. On the other Your Love Is My Favourite Band recalls the 80s in its disco inspired sound and perhaps cheesy refrain “I know you like to do me wrong// But your love is my favourite song”. In between, Out On The Street and Someone To Lose showcase their talent at making near perfect indie-rock songs and Young American recalls their mellower cuts like Family Friend but adds a seductive spin. It would make a great lullaby.
Picks: Nightclub, Put It On A T-Shirt, Surfing In The Sky, Out On The Street