Music moves in swings and cycles. It’s no great secret: in guitar-based pop you can easily plot the oscillation of popular taste from the peaks of punky energy to the troughs of fey wordiness and back again without much effort, each transition somehow robbing us of our desire to escape the fate that history has in store for us.
Right now, circa mid-2007, we’re slap bang in an era where the back-to-basics bands hold popular sway. History tells us that a band like GoodBooks shouldn’t really make much headway right now, but history has a habit of proving itself wrong. Goodbooks’ desire to beat against the current makes their debut album all the the more unusual – and all the more exciting. A four-piece from Sevenoaks, Kent with an average age of around 21, the band have beeen critically feted ever since the limited run of their first single, Walk With Me.
Subsequent singles Leni, The Illness and Passchendaele stoked the critical frenzy, and all have been collected on Control, their debut on Columbia. Even a cursory glance at their song titles leaves one with little doubt that this will not be an album that sings proudly of the rituals of snakebite and snogging.
Thankfully, it’s not an album that focuses on arcane literaturary references, either. Whether they’re channeling Orange Juice circa The Bridge on The Curse Of Saul and Alice, or lining up their effects pedals alongside contemporaries like Bloc Party on Beautiful To Watch and The Illness, this is a young band who are as happy looking inwards as they are documenting more global concerns.
The Britain that GoodBooks live in is not a happy place; the perceived failure of public figures weighs heavily on the narrator of The Curse of Saul: “He’s so sure that we’re doing the right thing, despite so many lies; after all he is our King, and we make sure he survives.” It’s hardly Swiftian, but it’s a breath of fresh air in an apolitical environment. You don’t have to agree, but you’re at least goaded into having an opinion.
Yet Control is far from being an album of Billy Bragg-esque anthems. The Illness looks within to deal with thwarted dreams, but manages to escape any reality TV show tropes: for a bunch of early twentysomethings, the band seem to be getting their mid-life crises out of the way pretty early, singing: “You wake up, you’re older, your plans just got smaller. Your children smile. You never even thought that you’d still be here today.” Only on their last single Passchendaele does their ambition overcome them, the tale of two generations of a family dying in two world wars sounding far too pat by half.
Far better to try and fail, though, than wallow in mediocrity. Control isn’t perfect; its stylistic Catholicism can sometimes carry unprepared listeners too far from the shore, leaving them gasping and struggling.
But any album that manages to marry the strident martialism of Walk With Me with the measured electronica of Violent Man Lovesong is some kind of achievement. It may manage to sound like a sketchbook for a band unsure of its identity – 12 songs in search of a producer – but I’d rather have Control’s big, messy songs over our current crop of three chord trick bands any day of the week. Whatever direction they decide to follow, Control establishes GoodBooks as a band to watch and follow; this is an album that deserves quiet contemplation, rather than just a quick flick through.