Orlando, Hugo, Felix, Rupert and Sam aren’t the most obvious names to find at the revolutionary vanguard, musical or otherwise. Rather, on The Maccabees‘ fourth album, Marks to Prove It, this most beguiling of “indie-guitar” outfits display such incrementally progressive tendencies that their uppity historical namesakes might disown them as splitters.
While much of Marks to Prove It could be pleasingly plotted on The Maccabees’ upward curve of musical development, they’ve at least been flexing their fledgling political muscles a little of late. This latest effort was recorded in their studio in Elephant & Castle, against a backdrop of “redevelopment” and gentrification of the area formed the idée fixe for the album. “It became about the night time, the inner city stripped-back and about the band dynamic again,” guitarist Felix White has said. But it was the transformation of the area and the decimation of a community that eventually seeped into the music that would become Marks to Prove It. A photograph of the striking Faraday Memorial on Elephant & Castle roundabout even became the album’s cover.
It’s all a very far cry from penning songs about leisure centre wave machines – only it isn’t really. They’ve always had the lyrical flair of the documentarian – absorbing their immediate surrounds and stimuli and plying them into their work. In this case it was the social and environmental upheaval around them. The political has rarely seemed less didactic or more personal. This has allegedly been accompanied by, to paraphrase the promotional blurb, a more stripped down sound.
Certainly, with the opening title track, there’s that reassuringly familiar lolloping bass and squalls of guitar that informed the best of their earlier work, and formed the slightly curved backbone of Mercury-nominated predecessor Given to the Wild. But then the descending Wurlitzer Organ breaks drags the track down into a murky, parallel bad-dream, Ghost town London.
‘Spit it Out’ offers up antsy E-Street energy with another descending, attacking piano and Orlando Weeks, um, spitting out the title refrain. It’s bloody great and gives lie to their admission that they’ve been trying to rewrite ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ these past few years – when they’ve clearly already perfected ‘It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City’.
‘River Song’ – about the secret underground tributaries that snaked below their studio-bound feet is a suitably twisted waltz, with a distorted cry – either human or horn or both – as the demented refrain. There is a sense of foreboding throughout, as befits a musical document of social entropy and, so ‘Slow Sun’ and ‘Something like Happiness’ right in the middle relieve some of that tension with more unambiguous lyrics, singalong choruses and some of those sweet harmonies that permeate The Maccabees’ most affecting, unaffected moments.
“That’s real love” sings Orlando Weeks in ‘Slow Sun’ – possibly the most direct he’s ever been. How it avoids being cloying is a thing of wonder in itself. But just when you thought they’ve given to the mild, ‘Pioneering Systems’ snakes into your time-delayed affections – an intricate puzzle-box of inscrutable beauty buried in the heart of the album
‘The Dawn Chorus’ then is a queasy, see saw of an utterly gorgeous coda to what has gone before. With a muted trumpet playing proceedings out it’s a low key conclusion to a wondrous psycho-geographical paean to a time and place already irrevocably changed. In other words, it’s another fine mess of emotive noise that The Maccabees have got us into, and as the blocks around their beloved studio are demolished in the name of progress, Marks to Prove It may well be the first ever great landfill indie album.