With their name and album title all in block capitals it’s clear that I LIKE TRAINS have something important to say. Eight years since they last graced us with their presence, they’ve returned with an album crammed full of compromising (new) material.
Whilst KOMPROMAT isn’t a concept album, it does deal directly with ideas of surveillance, corruption and political manoeuvring, Russian interference and lies. It is then, one of the most relevant and important records released this year. It’s all too easy to say that music isn’t angry or political these days (it is, you just have to look in the right places), but few bands have hit the nail quite so squarely on the head as I LIKE TRAINS do here.
Most importantly they’ve not compromised their sound or ability to write emotionally affective songs in order to make their point. They’ve always been masters of writing about difficult subjects in finely crafted songs, whether it’s chess players, climate change, or the effect of technology on the human mind, they’ve worked their magic consistently. Accordingly, every one of these songs has a hook and a melody that digs in deep; that there’s well written polemic gracing it all too is the icing on the cake.
On KOMPROMAT they’ve moved away from the post-rock inflections of their earlier work and fully embraced the aesthetics of post-punk, goth and new wave. As befits its subject matter this is a dark album, with tautly thunderous bass often leading the charge and calling to mind Joy Division and New Order, and tight guitar lines that reimagine the simplicity and energy of Wire and Magazine. But it’s the lyrics and vocals of David Martin that drive the album forward, as he lays out the scandalous post-Brexit, post-truth, Trump/Johnson nightmare mess we find ourselves in.
Kicking off with A Steady Hand, KOMPROMAT initially seems quite laid back, but as soon as a cacophonous guitar cuts across the synth lines and Martin’s vocals, it becomes apparent there’s a sinister presence lurking beneath the surface. There are brown paper packages tied with string left laying around, it’s “all that we want” intones Martin, whilst also pointing out that it’s “never enough”. “I am the President,” he barks, “I am the over fed, bigoted, son of an immigrant”.
Post-punk influences are in evidence on the propulsive earworm of Dig In. In constant attack mode, with elbows out and teeth bared, it’s a caustic summation on political shenanigans, cover ups and cash grabs, a glorious direct gut punch. Could this be the kind of song to engage hearts and minds? A Man Of Conviction draws attention to the “scratch my back” behaviour of some politicians; that it does so whilst conjuring the ghost of Editors‘ Munich is a definite bonus.
Other apparent influences on the album include The National (New Geography, and its distinctly creepy line “I have eyes on everyone you’d consider leaning on”) and, curiously, Pigbag‘s Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag. The Truth is perhaps this album’s defining moment, not because the bassline seems to allude to Pigbag, although the use of that song in the 1990s Russian TV show “Look Out! Modern!” would suggest it’s a knowing wink. It’s the way that I LIKE TRAINS define what The Truth now constitutes.
Back in 2008, journalist David Carr suggested in his uniquely sourced “biography” that The Truth is usually singular but that lies are always plural. Times have changed, and The Truth is now more difficult to pin down, possessing more plurality. The Truth is variously defined in these songs as “no longer concerned with the facts”, “an unmade bed” and “what you want it to be”, and it “lies somewhere in the middle” (pun almost certainly intended). When Martin is laying it on the line, it’s impossible not to feel exasperated and angry, but also invigorated in that it is possible to peek behind the curtain and tear away from this peculiar world of shonky narratives.
Eyes To The Left wraps the album up with puns and cultural references, hinting at the Stranger Things soundtrack with a featured performance from a voice reminiscent of 2001‘s HAL. Yet while there are certainly all manner of influences on KOMPROMAT, this is an album of considerable depth and intellect that rewards careful investigation, and a well timed return from a band at the top of their game.