The group have recently struggled to match the tuneful aggression of their heavily punk-inspired debut What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?. After continuing with a relatively similar sound and style on their 2012 follow up Come of Age, they moved into more experimental territory with English Graffiti (2015).
The band has had a change of personnel since then. They have a new member on keys and a replacement for drummer Pete Robertson, who left in 2016. Despite these changes to the line-up, moving from a four to a five-piece band, their latest offering packs a fun, poppy, indie-rock punch and in many ways, sees The Vaccines heading back towards the more melodic, catchy, feel-good sound of their first album.
The album’s focus is on the combative nature of relationships, “we were talking all night / slow dancing into a fight“. The lyrics throughout grapple with the contradictions involved in desiring someone whose character you are unsure of, showcased by the opening track “Put It On A T-Shirt”: “they tried to tell me you were cold / and you’re impossible to hurt… they tried to tell me you were cold / but they would eat you for dessert“.
The first five tracks see frontman Justin Young flitting between devotion to his love interest and insistence that he needs to leave her, most obviously on “I Can’t Quit“, a catchy single in which the chorus declares “I can’t quit / I’m over it (I’m so dramatic)“.
The synth-heavy chorus of the radio-friendly third track pushes the limits of the listener’s cringe reflex with the seemingly deliberately nauseous “I know you like to do me wrong, but your love is my favourite song / I know you wouldn’t understand, but your love is my favourite band“.
Despite the sometimes melancholy subject matter, Combat Sports is a fun and exhilarating ride. By combining sometimes comically melodramatic lyrics with an upbeat rock backdrop, The Vaccines have created an album that is catchy and poppy, as well as offering some well placed, thought-provoking lyrics.
Fans of the band’s early sound will be most pleased with “Surfing In The Sky”: punchy and energetic without sacrificing melody, the fast-paced solo feels like The Vaccines confidently and triumphantly reasserting their original flair from What Did You Expect…?
The theme of indecision first broached on “I Can’t Quit” is followed up on the slower “Maybe (Luck Of The Draw)”, where high-pitched, jangly lead guitar and a laid-back synth track create a backdrop for Young’s doubts: “maybe I want to spend my life with you / I want to feel like other people do, with you“.
He’s desperately looking to recreate the joy he sees in other people’s relationships, and the perceived failure on this front leads to constant doubts. Before we know it, however, we see him imploring his lover, almost in a whisper, to “suffocate me in between your thighs / and take me swimming, naked, in your eyes” on the stripped-back “Young American”.
The cyclical nature of these thoughts and feelings lead to the near deranged sound on “Nightclub”, kicked off with a snappy, distorted riff. The chorus is almost shouted over a pumping bass drum “it makes my head feel like a nightclub“.
This tees up a more self-reflective end to the album, “Out On The Street” finally sees Young asserting himself slightly, choosing one woman over another and entreating her from outside her building with self-deprecating zeal, “I’m an uninspiring ending / but the best you’ve ever known“.
The keys and lowered pace on “Take It Easy” call to mind Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”. On it, Young admits that perhaps his character is also at fault. This song exhibits the personality of someone unable to deal with the consequences of difficult decisions, unable to take the bad with the good, “give me your cigarette but not your smoker’s cough“.
By the penultimate track, The Vaccines seem to have reconciled with the idea of maintaining a relationship, despite the fighting. They plead to have “Someone To Lose” on another catchy cut. The slow, drawn-out verses of the slightly anticlimactic “Rolling Stones” remind us again that The Vaccines are at their best when belting out short, sweet, frenetic, punky rock.
For the most part on Combat Sports, they do this successfully, and it makes for a exciting listen. With Ross Orton as producer (Arctic Monkeys’ AM), The Vaccines have reconciled themselves with doing what they do best and it sounds like they’re having fun whilst doing it. For fans, this can only be a good thing.
Purchase The Vaccines’ Combat Sports on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Alexander Stearn