Athlete – Black Swan

Originally released 24th August 2009. Review originally published 6th September 2009.

It’s easy to dismiss Athlete as seagulls following the Coldplay trawler, a convenient tag used pretty frequently by today’s ADHD suffering critics. Whilst handy, it’s a career synopsis that fails to take into account two factors: first, the parochial and unvarnished charm of their debut album Vehicles And Animals and secondly their slightly anachronistic belief in that old chestnut, the song. Lead singer Joel Pott after all wrote their poignant, signature ballad Wires about the premature birth of his first child, but as we know, this is an industry which has little time for nice guys.

Not of course that things have always been perfect: the Deptford quartet’s third album Beyond The Neighbourhood found them caught between populism and new direction setting, a move which confused fans and bemused label Parlophone, from which they subsequently parted company. Now signed to Fiction, Black Swan finds them once again filtering recent personal experiences – both good and bad – into the songwriting process, returning to the matters of the self which enabled so many people to connect with their first two records. In interview, Pott explained: “‘We’ve definitely experienced the joys of life…whether it’s all those things Athlete have achieved, or the birth of our kids. But, like anyone, we’ve had really difficult times too.” The record’s title forms an extension of this thinking: ‘It’s a metaphor, really, for unexpected things, those shocks in your life that are really significant and end up shaping you in one way or another.”

New label, brave new world then. But in truth it was always a bridge too far to reconcile such talk of upheaval in sound and verse, especially from a band with craft running through them like a proverbial stick of rock. For this and other reasons Black Swan is far less of a departure than Pott may choose to admit, at least from the sound of their million selling alma mater Tourist. It suits them better too. Opener Superhuman Touch fizzes with rekindled joy at being back on terra firma, Pott mastering their trademark big pop choruses, courtesy of a familiarly thudding bridge. It’s the kind of track which may convince their purported enemies within at MTV to give up some programming time to them, but if that fails Black Swan Song should resolve the two parties differences, a ballad carved out of those intense personal issues and delivered with a frankness rarely found outside of confessionals.

Time and again, you’re reminded that the key to Athlete’s appeal is in their simplicity. There’s no pretensions to solving nuclear proliferation, global famine or melting icecaps, just plain hard work. You suspect that being de facto rock stars didn’t always sit comfortably with them, but being a best kept secret again feels just fine. As befits a group returning to a comfortable nook, Black Swan has little time for what could be regarded as contemporary trappings, preferring the quiet-loud foot stomping of Don’t Hold Your Breath or the spotlight hush of Love Come Rescue.

Mostly the temptation is resisted to make something more stadium friendly, but when they lapse, Athlete conjure the finest moment; Light The Way, echoing Beyond The Neighbourhood’s Hurricane, whirls in epic fashion, Pott reassuring “I’ll be there to take your hurt, even if I come off worse” whilst drums clatter, guitars ring and Tim Wanstall’s pulsing synths sound fit to be heard underneath floodlights everywhere. More and more the key to longevity in the music business seems to be in ignoring, rather than following the crowd. Black Swan is a far from revolutionary record, deliberately so. Most critics will dine out to it’s reliance on an old formula. But revolutions rarely shift the status quo in the long term, and sometimes as here, joy can be found in the orthodox.

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