MARKS TO PROVE IT: MY ALBUM OF THE YEAR...
By Ellena Schuster-Farrell
..and The Maccabeees' album of their career (so far)
There's very little about my sixteen year old self that doesn't fill me with embarrassment. Walls plastered, inexplicably (and I can't believe I'm actually about to publicise this on the internet) with posters of The Kooks, an iPod full of landfill indie, and a MySpace that made liberal use of the word "random" were the main aspects of my identity. Hobbies obviously included wandering around LDN with my m8s and going to gigs that allowed over 14s in without an adult. I was therefore the target audience for Victoria Park's 'Underage Festival', where a sea of Topman zip-ups, Lego haircuts and polka dot dresses drifted from tent to tent as the half bottle of Smirnoff Ice and cans of Strongbow, hastily downed before entry, wore off.
Most of the bands that my friends and I saw on that drizzly day in Hackney were pretty dire, but there were exceptions - Four Tet, Florence and The Machine and Foals, to unintentionally alliterate a few; and of course, the band that had attracted us to this "festival" in the first place, The Maccabees.
It's pretty uncool to admit that the first time I saw the cherubic Orlando Weeks and his equally angelic band mates in the flesh was in a field, choking on the stench of Impulse body spray and surrounded by acne-ridden teenagers but I feel like it's a perfect representation of the band's journey. We loved them then because they sang these songs that sounded like personal anecdotes yet resonated with all of us - we were close enough to childhood to get that "screaming 'Are we there yet?!' doesn't get you there any faster" but right at that awkward phase where songs like 'First Love' and 'About Your Dress' were evocative of free houses and butterflies in stomachs. Aside from the lyrics, the songs on The Maccabees' debut 'Colour It In' ripped along with a raw energy that matched being fifteen or sixteen perfectly, tinged with that melancholy nostalgia that comes with growing up.
Fast forward eight years and The Maccabees are a very different band. Their second album, Wall of Arms, saw them stretch to a more adventurous place - the sound was more varied and textured, the lyrics making their way from the anecdotal to the universal, Weeks delicately observing that "the carbon makes a star, and after all that's all we are" in the stirring Young Lions. The closing track Bag of Bones hinted at the synthy, ethereal feel of what would come with 'Given To The Wild', their atmospheric third album. With each record, the band were taking giant leaps conceptually, lyrically and musically.
'Marks To Prove It' feels like the biggest leap so far, blending some of the best aspects of The Maccabees' back catalogue with a new maturity and sombreness - and beyond being a personal achievement for the band, It's this huge leap that makes the album my record of 2015. The title track stutters and starts like an old engine sputtering to life, before firing up with a jagged riff and a raw scream that signals a band waking up. From this striking opener, it's clear that fourth album Maccabees still have the same energy that emanates from 'Colour It In', only now it's honed in, fine-tuned and controlled. This is continued with the clever 'Kamakura', which plods melodically through each spacious verse, suddenly jumping out at you when Orlando spits out the chorus and the previously repetitive melody turns into an unrelenting, overcrowded cacophony - only for the track to wind down again to a dream like whimper and an abrupt end. This intelligent song-writing makes it clear from early on that the band are on their way to becoming masters of their craft, and its no surprise that the album has garnered stellar reviews, and is popping up in lists of this year's best records.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the album, and what makes it a standout record, is how it works as a whole. I'm not usually one for a concept album, but the band's aim of taking their listener from the start of the night to the following dawn is executed wonderfully here, without tracks feeling like interdependent pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This is where The Maccabees' talent for relatable lyrics comes in: images of night buses, blows dealt to old friends and someone waiting at home on the sofa build an almost tangible Friday or Saturday night out in a way that should be commended. The clever use of instruments and audio is essential in the creation of this London nightlife soundscape. The mournful 'Slow Sun', for example, opens with recordings the band took of early morning commuters, which lead in to a tune played on an instrument akin to a bugle, creating the impression of a sleepy wake up call from a hungover city.
It's details like these that set the album apart from anything The Maccabees have done before, and indeed from many of the other albums released this year. Each track stands alone as an interesting vignette, brought to life by clever words and inventive uses of sound, yet it all comes together as a complete record. What's more, they've managed to bring together both the energy that made their early material so infectious, and the loftier, more experimental sounds of 'Given To The Wild', tying it all together with one thematic thread. By the time dreamy closer 'Dawn Chorus' comes around, its as though the listener has been on a boozy, nostalgic, emotional bender with Orlando & co. The night is over, and it's the bit where you're not sure whether to order a takeaway or call it a night, as you reminisce about what it's like to be sixteen in a field, placebo-effect-tipsy off a couple of gulps of Smirnoff Ice.