To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album. I like The Vaccines a lot, and it’s easy to forget just how quickly they blew up and how massive they got when they did; they appeared on Jools Holland before they even had a record deal, and “If You Wanna” and “Norgaard” were absolutely everywhere for a while. Their first album “What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?” still holds up and shows they were more than a passing fad; it’s a fantastic slice of indie-pop and frenetic, feel-good rock numbers. However – and yes, I know what a cliché this is – they struggled to follow it up; Come of Age definitely has its moments but little more than that, and the less said about English Graffiti the better, quite frankly.
As a West Ham fan, though, I’m no stranger to being disappointed by things I like, so I was more than prepared to give Combat Sports a chance. I really wanted it to be good for the sake of my 15 year old self, but wasn’t sure whether it would be. And as it happens, it was. It’s not perfect; it’s inconsistent and forgettable in places, but there’s no absolute stinkers, and when it’s good, it’s very good.
Before you’ve even started listening, the first thing that strikes you is the length of the album – at 33 minutes, it’s shorter than you might expect given the band haven’t released an album since 2015. I don’t think this is a bad thing though; both their previous albums suffered from feeling too long, so it seems they’ve learnt from their mistakes and have made a conscious effort not to pad this one out unnecessarily. On the whole, it’s put together intelligently too; the pacing is good, and putting the quietest, slowest track (“Young American”) does a great job of giving the listener a breather. My only criticism of the structure is the opening; “Put It On A T-Shirt” just doesn’t do enough to grab your attention. It’s by no means a bad track, with a good build up and a catchy chorus, but one of the things The Vaccines are best at is starting their albums with a real punch; after “Wreckin’ Bar” and “If You Wanna”, you’re already hooked on their first album, making the underwhelming start to this one all the more disappointing.
Musically, it’s an interesting mix of styles. The band’s sound has changed a lot in the last few years from their low-fi, sounds-like-it-was-recorded-in-someone’s-shed (in a good way) roots; this album has more of a prominent synth presence and things like vocal effects which gives them a bigger, fuller sound; tracks like “Your Love is My Favourite Band” would hardly be recognisable as the same band as their debut album were it not for Justin Young’s unmistakeable vocals. These tracks aren’t all bad; “Nightclub” has the band on top form; it’s a blend of 80s pop, 90s indie, and rock n roll enthusiasm that adds up to a hugely fun, enjoyable tune and one of the highlights of the album. It also shows that the band are at their best when they follow their proven formula of short, in-your-face but catchy songs, as it’s these (“Nightclub”, “Surfing In The Sky”, “Out On The Street”) that are the most enjoyable parts of the album. Where Combat Sports falls down is on the longer, mid-tempo numbers like “Maybe (Luck of the Draw)”. Most of them are fine – if you’re being charitable, they could almost be filler tracks towards the end of a Pulp album – but there’s not really enough substance to them for them to really stick in your mind. They’re not offensive to the ears or anything, but I can’t see myself listening to other than when I’m listening to the album as a whole.
The Vaccines’ latest, then, is a bit of a mixed bag. In a lot of ways, it’s something of a return to form and a definite step up from English Graffiti, but not one that quite hits the heights of their debut. There’s a lot to admire about a band that want to experiment with new sounds, something The Vaccines have never been afraid of, but they’re still at their best when sticking to what they do best. Very few bands can write short, catchy indie-pop/rock quite like they can, and unfortunately not all of the tracks that depart from this are quite up to this (admittedly high) standard.