SOPHIE NEVRKLA reviews the rock quartet’s recent gig in Brixton.
‘So everyone,’ says The Vaccines frontman, Justin Hayward-Young, ‘it’s a Sunday evening. We should probably all be in church.’ Instead, everyone is gathered to see the indie rock outfit make their triumphant return after 2012’s number one album Come of Age. English Graffiti, their latest offering, has been praised as their most forward-thinking sounding album yet. The atmosphere at Brixton Academy did not disappoint: it was electric, pure rock and roll magic.
Walking into the auditorium, the stage is drowned in red, white, and blue: the colours of the French flag. A wonderful sign of musical and spiritual solidarity after the attack on Paris at the Eagles of Death Metal gig. This accentuated the the sense of camaraderie in the crowd. People of all ages stood side by side, clutching pints of Guinness: couples in their 50s who looked like they’d had a wild 80s; groups of bright-eyed sixteen year olds on dates; stoners in their early 20s wearing paisley and gearing up for the inevitable mosh pit. When the quartet (now with an added keyboardist) strut on stage, this excitement explodes into mania. They gleefully burst into ‘Handsome,’ a jokingly arrogant piece of happy pop. In a perfect, witty rhyming couplet, Hayward-Young smirks ‘Arresting, prepossessing and disarming / Oh what a stroke of luck that I am charming’ with newfound confidence. This confidence is sustained throughout, and is especially obvious during the chirpier, unashamedly honest numbers like ‘If You Wanna’ and ‘I Always Knew.’ The Vaccines are no longer apologetic for being indie rock’s hopeless romantics. ‘To you guys in the back,’ grins Hayward-Young, ‘this one’s just for you’, before breaking into the euphoric love song ‘Melody Calling,’ as Cowan’s jangly Marr-guitar marks the unmistakable opening.
When their debut record was released, critics raved about the raw, direct sound. ‘Its so real, so unpolished’: it is polished now, but not in a way that feels overly glossy. Every aspect of the music feels tighter, sharper, more defined. Hayward-Young’s vocals have settled in a happy space somewhere between Daman Albarn and Morrissey since his operations on his vocal chords in 2011. It sounds purer, more controlled, but still with his distinctive, expressive quality that can’t be taught. His solo, acoustic version of ‘No Hope’ after the encore is note perfect, and he commands the crowd they all sing along. Freddie Cowan’s outstanding guitar, which previously provided the highlight of live shows, now slots neatly into a band who can actually keep up. But Pete Robertson’s drumming is the real revelation, his solos charged with a Clem Burkesque urgency and ferocity. The audience screamed and moshed wildly as this all came together in chaotic order on tracks such as ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Bad Mood.’
Despite this shift, The Vaccines have not abandoned their past. Older, more angst-filled songs like ‘Post Break-Up Sex’ and ‘Wrecking Bar’ feel like looking back on old school photographs. These were churned out with swagger and aplomb, and each time Hayward-Young introduces an old number, he seems aware of how much the audience love him for it: the songs bring back memories for all of us, just as they do for the band. The jaded maturity of tracks like ‘Dream Lover’ and ‘(All Afternoon) In Love’ provide a more adult take on the same themes of sexual disappointment and lost love. It feels like the band has graduated, somehow, but they haven’t lost the art of remembering. Just as English Graffiti reconciled 80s influences with futuristic production, this live show struck a happy medium between new material and nostalgically reflecting on the old.
As the show builds up to its glorious climax, drawing back the tide with the muted ‘All in White’ before swelling to a huge tidal wave of rock heaven on ‘Norgaard,’ I am reminded of how rare moments like these are. The audience shouts and jumps along; the band beam back. In an era where rock and roll is struggling, The Vaccines really are ‘it’.
The Vaccines played Brixton Academy on 22nd November.