Following his 2010 solo stint, Paul Smith has returned to his rightful place as Maximo Park’s frontman, delivering The National Health – an album that sees the band return to its tortured, overwrought and danceable best. Watching the group in Shepherd’s Bush Empire, one could be forgiven for considering the other – largely silent – Maximo Park players a backing band. Drawing inevitable comparisons with Jarvis Cocker and Morrissey, Smith is a compellingly literate front man, insisting to his captive audience at one point that he will ‘try and curb my politeness for a contemporary audience.’ Yet Margins, his solo offering, didn’t pack anything like the same punch as Maximo Park are capable of at their best. Perhaps guitarist Duncan Lloyd, bassist Archis Tiku and keyboardist Lukas Wooller have more artistic input than their low-key stage presence suggests.
Smith, unsurprisingly, is a Francophile: the band’s first single recalled the 1960s Parisien Situationist movement when Smith cried: “I’ll do graffiti if you sing to me in French” and Banlieue from their new album evokes the danger of the city’s less savoury suburbs. It isn’t hard, then, to imagine the ease with which support act La Femme won Smith over – winsomely Gallic, this Parisien six-piece accompany their jerky Euro-pop with equally jerky dance moves. The audience response is lukewarm at best – this isn’t a band that benefits from a first listen live. But their enthusiasm unwavering; the group perform an enjoyable if not life-changing set, yelping their way gamely through a mish-mash of proto-punk and electronic numbers in matching T-shirts.
When Maximo Park finally take to the stage it is in semi-darkness, lit only by two spotlights; one, needless to say, shining down upon Smith. The first lines of The National Health’s opening track, When I Was Wild, proved too irresistible as an opener, despite the song’s rather downbeat mood. “Do I really need to give an introduction?” Smith croons, before scissor kicking his way into The National Health. The energy of this single does not go unappreciated by the band’s ardent fans, but things only really warm up when they break into some old favourites; Girls Who Play Guitars garnering a particularly warm response, with a hearty sing along to the anthemic chorus. A surprisingly well-muscled Smith is clearly in his element on stage, prancing around with a grace and ease in spite of his heavy trademark suit and bowler hat. An unlikely sex symbol, Smith warns the crowd “I’m about to make some strange shapes with my body” and female members of the audience visibly swoon. Even keyboardist Wooller makes a discreet nod to flamboyance – occasionally emerging from behind his instrument to enjoy some wild air guitar.
Smith’s voice isn’t as clear and sweet as it sounds on record – he strains at times to reach the higher notes, and often changes the tune slightly to avoid them altogether. But the harsher quality to his vocals allow for a more punky edge, and convey a real sense of frustration and anger in songs which before could have simply been understood as over-earnest. Maximo Park’s more anarchic side is out tonight, as evidenced by Smith’s use of a loudspeaker with which to sing The Kids Are Sick Again. The band’s third album, Quicken the Heart, was perhaps the worst received critically, and they wisely keep songs from that to a minimum on the set list, sticking to – as Smith Puts it – “old and new”, and not a lot in between. Maximo Park’s early and late work retains the jangly guitars and killer hooks for which they are known, but also a winning plaintiveness which they seemed to have lost in the interim, and songs from it seem comparably flat as a consequence.
The odd decision to begin the encore with Acrobat – a largely spoken word song – is unpredictably brilliant, and Smith thanks the audience for paying money to attend. Finishing finally with Our Velocity, Smith doesn’t have to struggle to hit the high notes – the audience are doing it for him.