Can music encompass a mass of contradictions? Bear witness to the human heart, to our unwieldy impulses, hidden doubts, wilder dreams? 'Marks To Prove It, the astonishing new album from The Maccabees, suggests that it can.
The step change on the bands last album, the Mercury-nominated Given To The Wild, here becomes a leap. Actually, is leap the right word to use about a record that has taken more than two years to complete? For the band themselves, the making of 'Marks To Prove It has sometimes felt more like a war of attrition than a labour of love. Hidden away in the anonymous two-storey building in Elephant and Castle, South London, that houses their sprawling rehearsal and recording space, Orlando, Felix, Hugo, Rupert and Sam used the experience of making Given To The Wild which had itself been painstakingly taken apart and then reassembled as a sign that their music was best created in a cocoon, without outside interference. What they hadnt reckoned on, they all admit, was the challenges such splendid isolation would pose. Without a clock to watch, without, too, a set of fresh ears to help keep them on the right path, the sessions often dissolved into drift and frustration. The incendiary, life-affirming album that eventually came out of those sessions may suggest that, for The Maccabees, hard graft and false turns are as much a part of the creative process as passion and inspiration. But that doesnt mean that, as they emerge, blinking, into the daylight again, they would want to repeat the experience.
Its like a bunker or a fortress, says Orlando of the siege mentality that set in at the studio. Youre either defending it or attacking it. It felt like that a lot. But you have to keep doing it; even though youre going home at night and thinking, 'I really tried today and nothing has happened. But its the only way we can do it. It sounds unromantic, but its fucking hard work, adds Felix. Sometimes people do write a song in three minutes, but what they dont tell you is that theyve been trying for three years, and they had to have been doing that in order for that moment to suddenly flow out. The nearly-ness is the worst, Orlando continues. You know, 'Its almost good. Felix: You cant live on 'almost.
One year in to the sessions, they called for outside help to extricate themselves from the tail-chasing cycle they realised they were trapped in. Hugo, who took charge of Production duties, says We had a huge amount of music, but none of it was quite complete, none of it gave us a sense of the right way for the record to go. We solved that by ditching the idea of compiling all these ideas on our computers, and instead put everyone in the room together to battle it out, like we used to do. So for a song to come through and make it on to the record, it had to have been played in here and sound great just the band, with no other elements. We ended up getting in touch with Laurie Latham (producer with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Echo and the Bunnymen amongst many). We love a lot of the music he has made, and he was a relaxed person who wasnt going to be too intrusive, we knew we needed someone else in the room who wasnt us, to stop us losing the plot. He just came in for a couple of weeks and sat in on the writing, stopping us when he thought something was worth keeping and thats when the record suddenly took shape.
It became about the night time, the inner city, stripped-back, and about the band dynamic again. continues Felix That can make it sound like we sat down and went, 'The last record was that, and this is this, almost like a meeting, but as you can probably tell, it is never as simple as that. But then, I dont think it should be. This is far from a retread of the previous album a trap so many bands fall (or are forced) into. We could have done that, Felix acknowledges. Given To The Wild itself was a shift away from what The Maccabees had been about before, in terms of atmosphere, with lots of layered vocals and big soundscapes, but much mellower, too. So it just felt right that this new record should move on from that too. One of the things we were clear about for the album, says Orlando, was not having too many voices, too many characteristics, so that you could get to know the sounds, the instruments. And then, at the end, that meant we could reintroduce those characters, not in a way that was aping what had gone before, but as a familiar face.
'Marks To Prove It certainly does that. 'Pelican, the Ivor Novello award-winning lead single from 'Given To The Wild, which also received Best Album at the 2010 NME Awards, addressed issues of mortality and the circle of life (We go back to where we came from / Like those before and those to come). The songs loping, arpeggiating motif haunts the new track 'Ribbon Road, one of several instances on 'Marks To Prove It where sonic signatures from the past are revisited. Its a bold but effective device, buttressing the sense of transformation and artistic growth that The Maccabees music has always been about, but also pointing out the dots that can be joined. Cross-referencing occurs within 'Marks To Prove It, too, Kamakuras Chase down the evening echoed in Spit It Outs One to wash it down; ditto the formers paean to the English coast, the place he loved the most and the latters Blame it on the ocean, a coastal erosion just two among countless examples that glue the album together. Throughout, themes repeat themselves. Transience, people clinging to their livelihoods, to each other, to the places they call home. Complicated, incomplete human beings, whose lives are measured out in triumphs and adversity. The flame of romance still flickering, or dying out entirely. An urban landscape, transforming before their eyes. Being ambushed by memories, and the pain and pleasure they contain.
Orlandos lyrics conjure up the permanence of cities and the fleeting nature of human existence, with a vividness of the sort captured in a Patrick Caulfield painting. Allusive rather than specific, they are the result of the ambition to create stories that arent told, if you see what I mean, or proscribed; theyre hinted at, and youre given synopses, triggers that you can then follow. Little moments because thats whats happening, constantly. And thats what being here, in the same place for two and a half years, feels like. All around us, there is so much going on. Nothing changes, deep down, but the area has gone through some huge shifts. The Heygate council estate was demolished, the library burnt down. Theres a brand-new type of person here, but theres also this thing that is immovable, this atmosphere that is holding on, just. As an area, its unashamed, and its a hard place to define. Its not trying to be anything particular. And it sort of goes by unnoticed.
The rooting this record has with its area is not only understood as a principle to ground its making, but also for the campaign throughout. The album cover itself is a photo of the Faraday memorial on the areas roundabout, taken on an evening in the 1960s, sitting alongside a continued use of Andy Goldsworthys work for the single sleeves.
A summer of festivals beckons. There are songs on the new album that cry out for a sun-drenched field and a crowd stretching as far as the eye can see. If the roiling, roistering, tempo-shifting lead single Marks To Prove It and the music-hall gait and lyrical poignancy of World War One Portraits are set to raise the temperature, and Kamakuras mournful lilt cool it down again, there is one track above all that will leave an indelible mark on those who hear it, or witness it live. Spit It Out might be the song The Maccabees have been reaching for ever since they first formed, 11 years ago. The central refrain of What are we doing now? is devastating enough, but it is when Orlando implores, 'Come on come ON! Its going to get easier, somehow that you find you suddenly have something in your eye. These are
songs to lift your heart, but to break it, too. What took The Maccabees so long? Well, they were making a masterpiece. Thats what. And theres no 'almost about it.