The Wombats? The Wombats!
Nearly two decades in, the Liverpool trio has honed in on an eminently catchy and danceable version of alternative rock, the kind of thinly veiled pop that can come off as saccharine, cynical, and unlistenable in the wrong hands. It’s a dangerous line they walk — the one between artful, dynamic indie rock and chipper mall boutique music. In fact, the Wombats’ current style is executed so poorly by so many bands that I had forgotten how good it can be when it’s done well. But Fix Yourself, Not The World, their new album out this week, is done extremely well.
Formed in 2003 at a time when dance-punk was on the rise, the Wombats did not release their first LP until late 2007, by which point the UK was long since overrun with groups intent on using the subgenre as a launchpad for arena-shaking anthems. Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, and the Arctic Monkeys had all released their iconic debut albums and were on to their less memorable sophomore outings. As explained in an instant-classic Vice listicle outlining so-called “Landfill Indie,” this was a post-Strokes, post-Libertines moment when “dozens upon dozens of identikit ‘The Somethings’ bands were plucked from the pavements of regional towns and dropped onto Radio 1 playlists overnight.” And although that article identified “Moving To New York” as “a simply huge moment in both the history of modern Britain and the formation of Dark Fruits lad culture,” the song that feels most like a time capsule to me is a raucous howl-along number called “Let’s Dance To Joy Division” that has at least as much in common with Fall Out Boy as the Kooks. (It won the NME Award for Best Dancefloor Filler in 2008.)
This is not the nostalgic endorsement you might be expecting. By the time the Wombats were on the scene I was no longer tuned in to the whole Landfill Indie thing. I’ve always been ambiently aware of the band, but I had no real history with them before I pulled Fix Yourself, Not The World out of the virtual promo pile in search of something to spotlight this week. I was pleased to discover a band that has refined its talents with age, striking a stylish balance between the abrasive smartass sneer that defined much of the ’00s and the smoothed-out poptimist fare that padded out so many festival posters in the ’10s. This is an album of expertly deployed pop-rock with an eclectic palate but aimed down the middle — groovy, hooky, full of vibrant arrangements and evocative lyrics.
Things get off to a brisk start with “Flip Me Upside Down,” on which propulsive bass and drums whisk you away through segments both tuneful and aggressive. It’s a song about being enthralled and inspired by a romantic partner, and Matthew Murphy’s vocals effectively channel that intoxication. Here and throughout the album, Murphy asserts his stature as a compelling microphone presence, a savvy lyricist, and a melodic craftsman capable of ratcheting up from conversational tenderness to impassioned wails without missing a beat. There are glimpses of several decades’ worth of British alt-rock greats in his delivery, from Jarvis Cocker to Thom Yorke to Alex Turner to Matty Healy. But with lyrics like “So baby keep your big mouth shut and stop wasting my time,” he makes it abundantly clear which era he emerged in.
The music on Fix Yourself, Not The World is a similarly effective fusion of historical touchstones. The gliding, uptempo “This Car Drives All By Itself” evokes Republica’s “Ready To Go” or the time-lapse euphoria of Madonna’s “Ray Of Light,” while “Ready For The High” rides in on chunky guitar chords right out of Blur’s late-’90s American alt-rock phase. “Everything I Love Is Going To Die” is a new wave strut that lays the groundwork for the plastic funk of “Wildfire.” Even the parts that directly call back to the Wombats’ heyday pop like new — take advance single “If You Ever Leave, I’m Coming With You,” with verses worthy of Phoenix and a chorus the likes of which we haven’t heard from Kele Okereke since Silent Alarm. Murphy tellingly name-drops Radiohead on that one; there’s more than a little Yorke in lyrics like “It’s not paranoia if it’s really there,” though the context for Murphy’s falsetto flights of fancy is more likely to remind you of descendants like Muse or alt-J.
At the dawn of 2022, the 20-year nostalgia cycle indicates the time is right for a dance-punk revival, and releases like last year’s Citizen album suggest renewed interest in the era that birthed the Wombats. But for every moment on Fix Yourself, Not The World that calls back to the band’s salad days, there’s one that shows the Wombats aging gracefully, subtly evolving their sound without losing their core identity. “We’re all trying to get better, and we’ve all had quite enough of this pleasant displeasure,” Matthew Murphy sings halfway through the album. “But people don’t change people, time does.” Maybe so, but not every group delivers an album this accomplished and mature 15 years past their debut.
Fix Yourself, Not The World is out 1/14 on AWAL. [Editor’s note: LOL, I’ve just learned that this week’s Album Of The Week actually comes out next week.]
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Weeknd’s Dawn FM
• Burial’s ANTIDAWN EP
• Gunna’s DS4
• Waxahatchee’s El Deafo soundtrack EP
• thanks for coming’s rachel jr.
• AITIS BAND’s AITIS BAND III
• Vulfpeck’s Vulf Vault 005: Wong’s Cafe
• Deaf Club’s Productive Disruption