Our Earthly Pleasures
here's something foreign in Paul Smith's voice as he sings “Did we go too far, is that why your nose is bleeding?” during the second half of Our Earthly Pleasures, and it's not his Geordie accent. It's sympathy. On 2005's A Certain Trigger Smith and the rest of Maxïmo Park seemed defined by rigidity and acceleration. They made the hectoring rapidity of their best songs work for them, but there was always the danger that a great, one-note album does not a career or oeuvre make. They've dodged that trap; unexpectedly, while Smith stays mostly in his topical comfort zone (which, in addition to a fondness for moving away, literature, and urban geography can be summed up by quoting Robyn: “But you never were, and you never will be mine”) he's expanded his range dramatically, and the rest of the band follows suit.
On A Certain Trigger Smith was either playing the role or living the life of an over-educated under-socialized young guy who is out of touch enough with his emotions that over-intellectualizing everything, from his mistakes to his successes, is the only real defense. That was part of what made them interesting. To say he's softened would be overstatement, but the run of songs tucked in the back of Our Earthly Pleasures from “By the Monument” to the expansive, generous “Sandblasted and Set Free” marks the thirteen-and-a-half minutes that the band become fully human without sacrificing their ability to pelt headlong through a song with their characteristic sleek fierceness.
Certainly the sound here is beefier and more varied than before, as on the marvelously hurtling and slightly metallic first single “Our Velocity” and similarly heavy highlight “Karaoke Plays,” where Smith juxtaposes the titular activity with a random hit-and-run. He's getting better at showing and not telling; before any sort of resonance would have been examined to death but here it's left to the listener to draw any connections, albeit assisted by a towering chorus.
But they're not just harder; “Books From Boxes” may be their gentlest song yet, and “Russian Literature” seems as if it will be too until it imperceptibly shifts into one of their most forceful. Not that their customary mode is left behind; “The Unshockable” and “Girls Who Play Guitars” could easily have fit in among “Apply Some Pressure” and “Going Missing,” even as the richly pop “By the Monument” and several other tracks display a slight and successful shift to the accessible. Particularly striking is “A Fortnight's Time,” marrying impeccably interweaving organ beeps during the verse and piano during the chorus, as well as the closest thing Smith has yet to exhibit to giddiness: “And so, would you like to go on a date with me?” It's destined for a thousand teenage mixtapes, and it's hard to begrudge them it.
Maxïmo Park haven't just avoided the sophomore slump, they've made a follow-up that suggests that those who threw their lot in with the band instead of, say, the Futureheads made the right choice. Almost as exciting as the music on Our Earthly Pleasures is the potential; they're at the same place Idlewild were after 100 Broken Windows, although one hopes they do better with their opportunity than that band. Near the end of “Our Velocity” Smith sings “My words are just punches / I'm not sure what they mean,” but if the band is still pleasingly unhinged and unconscious of their power, they're still getting closer to mastering it.