When they first started getting namechecked back in 2002 there was genuine excitement about the Deptford four-piece. They ticked a lot of the right boxes. They were suitable for mass consumption, boasting elements of a one-size-fits-all daytime radio pop that was inescapably promising. But they also had a quirky side to them, something leftfield that put them in a league above those who were simply peddling lifeless guff to try and receive radio airplay and chart success.
Indeed, 2003’s Vehicles And Animals is a perfect illustration of Athlete’s ability to craft FM friendly pop monsters that still had enough bite, experimentation and decent ideas to be attractive to more discerning music fans.
But since then their form has been questionable. Wires, taken from 2005’s Tourist album, was an achingly profound and deeply poignant song that saw Athlete propelled to the top of the charts for the first time in their career. They reached it with a song that dropped the tempo, minimalised the instrumentation and fashioned a sound that was far more introspective.
Since then, the band’s experimental side (the side that made them good) has suffered, as if Wires was the new blueprint on how to write successful songs. And unfortunately that makes for a band who are becoming more toothless and pallid with every release.
Black Swan takes flight with Superhuman Touch. Built around throbbing synths, it resurrects the heady days of when Athlete were cool. But the inescapable conclusion is that Athlete have only reappointed such an instrument because 2009’s radio playlist has forgotten that any other instruments exist.
Musically, it sounds like MGMT, and it portends a great start. But the travails of the verse are undone by the chorus, which scrounges its vocal melody from Get What You Give by New Radicals, and is just too contrived.
Light The Way is a highlight of sorts, with rustic guitars and a careening rhythm section, but it takes two minutes to really get going and is let down by a horrible snare sound, comparable to stamping on a packet of Hula Hoops. And why would anyone do that?
Don’t Hold Your Breath is made a lot better by an endearingly passionate, even desperate delivery. But it still pales in comparison with the Athlete of old, while Awkward Goodbyes is cringingly wet guff.
The Getaway sounds like the trite worship music that defines Sunday mornings (no offence, Christian Rock), while Black Swan Song is bland and languid. In fact, bland and languid are two apt adjectives to summarise the whole album.
“This is so obvious,” moans Joel Pott on Awkward Goodbyes, as if he’s already appraised his latest uninventive output. Why oh why did Athlete start ploughing the faux-introspective pop anthem furrow into which Snow Patrol have long been defecating?