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Maximo Park
The National Health Matthew Foster , June 13th, 2012 11:32

I've been waiting for Maximo Park to surprise me since 2005, and, as of today, they still haven't. Maybe it's the fact they cut their teeth on Warp, perhaps it was the run of great b-sides veering from looping, Modeselektor-collaborating electronica to pretty, whispered folk, or just the fact they pegged themselves firmly on the art-school side of the mid-2000s Britrock bubble, but I've always felt a tasty avant-garde act was lurking somewhere under the surface, waiting to weird us all out. Not just yet, says fourth LP The National Health.

It doesn't start out that way, however. Sparse piano-led intro 'When I Was Wild' deceptively eases the listener in, before being suddenly usurped by the hook-laden machine gunner of a title track. That song's cry of "England is sick and I'm a casualty" sets the listener up for an album of biting social commentary, but it's a storm that quickly passes. In fact, in spite of its state-of-the-nation title, the Park's latest is largely protest-free, only the aforementioned title track and frantic anti-apathy closer 'Waves of Fear' (“My company? Means nothing to me!") alluding to a world beyond behatted singer Paul Smith's diary.

Of course, portentous political lyrics can quickly grate and have a habit of tripping up even the most talented of wordsmiths, but calling a record 'The National Health' at a time when the country's being sucked down the plughole does mean Maxïmo risk disappointing a few hoping for a reassuring hand to hold in scary times. What you'll get instead is largely vintage Smith; lovelorn tales, half-remembered conversations, self-deprecation and filthy, geeky, Geordie sex.

Smith's backed up, once more, by jangly, occasionally beefy guitars, quirky synth lines and a playful rhythm section, the overall sound closer to second record Our Earthly Pleasures than either their skinny debut or Quicken The Heart. When it works, it really does work, as as evidenced by the sweeping choruses of three-and-half-minute gems like single 'Hips and Lips' and windswept beauty 'The Undercurrents'. Yet when it plods, The National Health really plods. Although there are baby steps in other directions, as on the beautiful acoustic strum of 'Unfamiliar Places 'and the sleazy stomp of 'Banlieue', one of the album's best, there's a niggling sense that cookie-cutter tracks like 'Reluctant Love' and 'This is What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted' could slot comfortably on to any of the last two Maxïmo Park records without upsetting anyone and much of the record's mid-section plays out like this, a pleasant, professional offering that rarely goes anywhere you wouldn't expect it to.

While Maxïmo famously go off like a Catherine wheel live, they seem to phone it in for much of their latest. Perhaps, like godparents The Smiths, they'll play out their career mostly tweaking and refining an addictive signature sound instead of properly ripping things up and heading to more sonically adventurous pastures, but it would be a shame when they have, in the past, touched plenty of other buttons. Refinement of a craft is perfectly allowed, of course, and Maxïmo Park are still the brilliant and bright British pop act they were eight years ago: I just can't help wishing they'd take some of that talent and really run wild with it.