Greatest hits albums usually mark one of two things for a band – the end of their career or the signalling of a new direction. When Supergrass’ We Are 10 was released last year, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the former. Never really an ‘albums band’ (with the exception of the wondrous In It For The Money), the collection of the band’s singles seemed to sum them up nicely.
However, it seems as if We Are 10 was more drawing a line under their cartoon-ish image as they regrouped in search of a more mature sound. Yes, ignore the dreadfully punning title – Road To Rouen is the sound of Gaz Coombes and company all grown up.
It shouldn’t work. Supergrass are the cheeky loveable scamps with oversized sideburns and videos featuring Chopper bikes and puppets – aren’t they? Song titles such as Tales Of Endurance Parts 4, 5 & 6 belong on prog-rock epics don’t they? Can the two really co-exist? Well, yes they can as Road To Rouen is Supergrass’ best album in years, once you’ve got your head round their radical new sound.
For you won’t find any chirpy little pop gems such as Alright or Pumping On Your Stereo here. Musically, it’s all over the place – one minute there’s a languid, lazy, Think Tank-era Blur feel as on the magnificent single St Petersburg, the next minute there’s a funky Latin-style instrumental lasting less than two minutes, while there’s also flat out rockers, piano-based acoustic numbers, and the aforementioned Tales Of Endurance which takes in brass, acoustic guitars, jazz and blues – all while Gaz Coombes murmers lyrics about “commercial suicide…kiss the life you left behind”.
A lot of this album could reasonably be described as that hackyned old chesnut ‘Beatle-sque’, but in a good way – rather than the usual lifts that bands such as Oasis have made a living from, Road To Rouen takes as inspiration the more interesting Beatles moments, such as The White Album. Sad Girl in particular is quirky, funky and not at all unlike a track from the Mersey quartet’s finest album. Roxy, meanwhile, has a more surprising ELO sound to it, with a string section backing the song before going into an extended jam towards the end of the song’s six minutes . Even better is the fact that, unlike ELO, it sounds great.
The aforementioned single St Petersberg is another gem as well – utterly different to anything Supergrass have done before, it’s a quiet, wistful number with subtle brushed drums and a rather lovely piano line, with Gaz Coombs sounding a million miles away from the kid who was caught by the fuzz. Sad, regretful and not unlike Badly Drawn Boy, St Petersburg is a little gem.
The second half of the album shows the more traditional side of Supergrass, with songs like Kick In The Teeth and the title track being driving rock songs that you can imagine will prove very popular when performed live. But it’s the closing tracks that display Supergrass’ more interesting new direction – the acoustic mid-paced ballad of Low C (with Coombs sounding spookily like John Lennon) and the laid back majesty of the appropriately titled Fin capture the album’s mood best.
That’s all without mentioning Coffee In The Pot, an endearingly quirky, idiosyncratic little instrumental which quickly becomes incredibly addictive. Believe me, you’ll be joining in with the various “hey!”‘s scattered throughout the song.
It all adds up to the sound of a band developing and maturing nicely, without ever losing sight of what made them so great in the first place. If there is a criticism, it’s that there’s not enough of it – at 35 minutes, Road To Rouen is over far too quickly. Then again, if the first rule of showbiz is ‘always leave them wanting more’, then Supergrass have more than succeeded here. A contender for album of the year in fact.