In a 2008 issue of Kieron Gillen’s essential comic book Phonogram, the character David Kohl recommends Los Campesinos! to another character, and opines that the Cardiff-based indie pop group “are never going to be ‘big’ big, but they’re going to be big to some people.”
That quote more or less reflects the career path that the band has followed since they debuted 11 years ago. Despite being one of the most consistently great album bands in indie music, they’ve never quite reached the heights of other acts that came up at the same time: Their frontman, Gareth Campesinos!, once noted that several groups that had once opened for them – Vampire Weekend and Two Door Cinema Club among them – have achieved considerably higher profiles than them.
Los Campesinos! has spent much of the past decade attempting to rid themselves of the “twee pop” tag bestowed on them for their earliest singles, despite the fact that they stopped sounding like that by the time they released their second record. Certainly, anyone who comes into their sixth LP Sick Scenes knowing them only by their Hold On Now, Youngster…–era reputation may be surprised by how morose and darkly funny their music has become.
Most of the songs on Sick Scenes directly address that it is the first release that a band so identified with young adults in the late 2000s has made after most of their members turned 30. Opener “Renato Dall’ara (2008)” kicks off that theme with a very specific analogy on their late 2000’s heydey, wrapped up in one of their beloved soccer references.
This is a band whose music is great just on the surface without any lyrical context, but the added layer is there for the diehard fans that scour their Genius page after every album release for the band’s clever, deeply layered references to European football, their musical influences and small-town English life.
Basically, if you don’t bother to look up what Renato Dall’ara is or why events that happened there are significant to this song, it will not hamper your enjoyment of it. It’s a stellar, propulsive opening track with the kind of upbeat, anthemic instrumentations and melodies that band have become masters at creating over the course of their career. For added fun, it doesn’t take any deeper reading to understand why the first verse has one of the funniest couplets that this band has ever written.
The acoustic folk song “The Fall of Home” is more lyrically direct: You don’t need to dive into deep lyrical analysis to understand the song’s sweet, but somber message. In just twelve lines, the band weaves a sketch of someone returning to their hometown after some time away to discover that it has changed for the worst. The last line “give the fascists a thousand ticks” reveals a sense of disappointment and betrayal by the narrator in regards to how his hometown voted in Brexit. It’s the only overtly political line on the entire album, and it carries significant emotional weight given the themes on both the song and the entire album.
Sick Scenes is an album that mixes the band’s old thematic chestnuts like death, sex and British soccer and adds lyrics about aging and depression into the mix. For a band that has been so morbidly obsessed with death over their career, Sick Scenes is the first that feels like it is engulfed in that subject over anything else, which has resulted in some of the most straightforward and often wickedly funny songs of their career.
The album’s best song, the single “5 Flucloxacillin”, mixes deeply personal lyrics about prescription depression medication with a gorgeous chorus about confronting older generations who have an unreasonable axe to grind with millennials. And yet, the song still features a crushing line like “31 and depression is a young man’s game” that is practically the thesis statement for the entire record.. It’s a wonderfully constructed song that hinges on some of the best melodic instrumentation work that the band has ever done.
Another one of the album’s highlights is the sterling “Here’s to the Fourth Time!”, which touches on a few of the same themes as “Renato Dall’ara”. The song’s lyrics – some of the best on the record – are a paean to the band’s university days when they were just starting up. At one point, Gareth rattles off a list of streets in Cardiff that he lived on in the late 2000s and asks for just one more week of being 20 again. The song also feels like a companion to “The Fall of Home”, a fonder recollection of somewhere from the past that has yet to give off the same deep sense of disappointment. These kinds of contrasts to other songs on the same album is a new concept for the band, and it’s a successful one , which brings out the best in the band’s lyrical chops.
The rest of the album’s songs are a solid bunch that reward repeat listens, both for lyrical content and little instrumental flourishes one might not catch on the first time out. “I Broke Up in Amarante”’s world-weariness makes a little more sense when you find out that some of its lyrics were inspired by how Gareth unwound from recording the record (and the disastrous 2016 Summer Euros tournament) by kicking a football around a nearby abandoned stadium. Meanwhile, you won’t realize how catchy the chorus of “Get Stendhal’s” is until it’s already burrowed deep into your brain, practically demanding it be the first song you relisten to when you’re picking through to play the songs individually.
Sick Scenes is just as great as the rest of the band’s records, continuing an unbroken streak in quality that goes straight back to their twin 2008 albums. It also continues the band’s continued evolution in maturity, both as songwriters and instrumentalists. Never before has the band sounded as tight as a unit as they are here, bonded the unity of being part of a niche, cult band for so long.
As Phonogram predicted, Los Campesinos! never became “big” big, but for those somebodies to whom they became big, Sick Scenes will remind them that they made an excellent choice in picking them as their favorite band all those years ago.