Maximo Park – The National Health


After a three-year hiatus, Maximo Park return with unyielding ambition on The National Health; unfortunately, this does not work in their favor. The band struggles to reclaim the edge and whimsy of A Certain Trigger and, as a consolation, pursues shinier production and loftier lyricism. The finished product is both charming and alienating; it successfully brandishes their ability to craft syrupy sweet pop rock, but it also begs the question of why that was even their goal in the first place. Maximo Park have previously set themselves apart from their Brit-pop contemporaries by offering a unique balance of abrasive distortion and synth-driven pop melodies. By disrupting this balance and embracing only the latter element, The National Health dangerously toes the line of pure pop music – something that is not likely to sit well with many long-time fans.

In an interview with Londonist, keyboardist Lukas Wooller described The National Health as the “‘Best of…’ [they] never had, on shuffle.” Though most of the content is actually a striking departure from the band’s previous work, the track layout does follow the non-sequitur format of a “best of” collection. Take, for example, the first two tracks, “When I Was Wild” and “The National Health.” The opener features a slow, haunting piano and violin piece, while frontman Paul Smith sings with an uncomfortably serious tone about his youthful rebellion. Just over a minute long, it ends abruptly and listeners are jarred into a high-energy rock banger about the United Kingdom’s national health system.

These tracks were reportedly placed together on purpose in an effort to surprise listeners, a tactic that would have been fitting if “The National Health” signified the overarching sound for the rest of the album. (“When I Was Wild” could have been a friendly tease, misleading us to believe that the album would be an “unplugged” pop record, when in fact it was really a collection of political post-punk.) But that is not the case. What follows instead is (excluding “Hips and Lips” and “Banlieue”) uncharacteristically sweet and soothing.

The musical composition alone is quite likable. Though it is often less intricate and less powerful than previous efforts, it boasts distinctive technical accomplishment and crystal clear production. Yet, somehow Smith’s vocals become the tipping point that drives the album to a point of perfection that is almost nauseating.  His pretty boy vocals act as a grounding force when juxtaposed with the wilder, more offbeat instrumentation of tracks like “Banlieue.” However, throughout most of the album, his voice synergizes with bouncy synths, twinkly guitar riffs, and heart-on-sleeve lyricism to produce what is alarmingly similar to a track that the Glee cast might cover.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Maximo Park made was bringing back producer Gil Norton, a man whose resume includes work with the likes of the Foo Fighters, Counting Crows, Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional. The last album they worked on with Norton, Our Earthly Pleasures, saw a similar loss of edge and a move towards a smoother, more radio-ready sound. It felt forced then, and it feels even more awkward on The National Health, now that it is exacerbated by what appears to be an unsuccessful effort to demonstrate lyrical maturity.

Maximo Park have always had an element of playfulness at the core of their composition, as well as their lyricism. Lines like “I’ll do graffiti, if you sing to me in French,” were permissible because we knew that they weren’t taking themselves seriously. On The National Health, they adopt a more adult perspective with Smith often singing of regret, relationship drama, and a newfound desire for self-improvement. In order to make an impact, however, this warrants more skillful poetics than the band is able to muster up. As it stands, their lyrics come off as rather juvenile – trying to reflect maturity instead of actually reflecting it. In particular, the opening verses often struggle the most, which may prematurely deter listeners. “You said you wanted someone just like me/ You let me read it in your diary,” and, “Human nature is on a loop/Spare me a moment to regroup,” sound like quotes from a high school student’s creative writing piece, not the lyrics of a well-established rock band.

In spite of these flaws, The National Health serves as a glimmer of hope for Maximo Park’s next record (which may be coming out sooner than you would expect). It shows that they certainly haven’t lost their chops and that they are still very much driven in their creative endeavors. Now that they have readjusted to working together, their next record should flow more seamlessly and require less effort to churn out.

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