The Vaccines are an English indie rock band from West London, and have gone on to sell over two million records worldwide. They’ve opened for the likes of The Rolling Stones, Arctic Monkeys, The Stone Roses and Muse. They’ve played the O2 Arena and appeared at Glastonbury. To put it poetically, they’re pretty bloody big. But all greats have to start somewhere, and for these British boys, that was March of 2011, when they released their debut album: What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?
It became an instant hit – the best-selling debut of the year, and hitting the charts in multiple countries around the globe. Just two months earlier, the band appeared on NME and the success of the record guaranteed them a spot at the Readings and Leeds festival that summer; one of many festival spots that year. But what is such a strong album made of?
What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? opens with ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’, a perfect slick of punk-influenced pop rock. At barely one-and-a-half minutes, it foreshadows the debut as a whole (its twelve tracks span only 35 minutes in total). But it’s refreshing that the track doesn’t feel the need to go on any longer than necessary (though it absolutely could). It was the band’s debut single (packaged with ‘Blow It Up’) released five months before the album to positive reviews, and just as well. Namechecking F. Scott Fitzgerald and crowbars, it’s lyrics are a touch cryptic, lost in the song’s fuzzy mix. But still incredibly catchy.
‘If You Wanna’ is the third single from the album, eventually peaking at 35 on the UK Singles Chart – dealing with the melancholia of heartbreak. It’s poignant refrain and typical high-octane riffing make for yet another great pop-rock take. Possibly the song I remember most from predrinks during my first term at unversity, and it stands the test of time. It’s simple, it’s catchy, it rocks. ‘A Lack of Understanding’, meanwhile, has real shades of The Killers’ 2004 debut, Hot Fuss. It shows Young as his most vulnerable thus far, and remains one of the album’s most underrated tracks. Just good indie rock, and The Vaccines have already mastered that three songs in.
What comes next is perhaps the band’s simplest, content-wise, but still a personal favourite: ‘Blow It Up’. ‘A Native American feather/ Degenerates look better in leather…’ sets the scene for a tune on wanting something casual, and Young wishing not to deal with a partner’s selfishness. It’s repetitive chorus never gets old. And then, just as I was making this band out to be simplistic and catchy, they hit us with ‘Wetsuit’, a regretful anthem about wanting to be young again; to wear t-shirts, go diving and be heartbroken. All the while puncutated with tribal backbeat. The track builds throughout, into something genuinely succinct and full of emotion (even if Young was only in his early twenties at the time). It reached No. 164 on the singles chart, and it should have really been higher.
In the same vein of ‘Wreckin’ Bar…’, ‘Norgaard’ is barely over a minute long. In reference to Danish model Amanda Norgaard (with whom Young once went on a date, to total indifference) it’s the most nonchalant love letter there is. ‘Smaller tits/ And skinny framwork/ Tall, shapr hips…’ make for an interesting track given Norgaard was only seventeen at the time. Young comments on this in the song (‘She’s only seventeen/ So she’s probably not ready’), and has since stated that he finds it more uncomfortable to sing the older he gets. It’s one hell of a tune, though, and easily one of the band’s best.
‘Post Break-Up Sex’ is post-punk at its best. A resonant track on rebound relationships and the intimacy they bring (or don’t), it’s one of those Vaccines tracks that’s more intricate than it lets on. ‘What did you expect from post break-up sex?’ Young poses with an air of contempt. I suspect the song’s familiar to most, but its mellow, inquisitive chorus delivers the lesson with surprising ease. The two-and-a-half minutes of ‘Under Your Thumb’ are a scantily-clad display of indie rock in perhaps the album’s most forgettable number. Nevertheless, it’s more than listenable and features some of Freddie Cowan’s best guitar work yet.
I admit that, around this point, I’d stoppe listening to the album in the past. Probably because I wasn’t as familiar with its material, but either way I was very pleasantly surprised on a complete run. With its biblical imagery and vicious allusions to jealousy, ‘All in White’ is very Killers-esque, but undeniably benefits from Young’s matter-of-fact delivery. The frontman has since stated, ‘[The track] says more about me than it does about other people’. And it does. It says the man can write.
‘Wolf Pack’ furthers the theme of Young’s caution and distrust of others; one which runs throughout What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? Sadly, the track isn’t much more than that. It is catchy, though. ‘Family Man’, meanwhile, is the longest track of the album, clocking in at five minutes. And it’s brilliant. Also one of the record’s sparsest compositions, both in production and lyrics. Akin to ‘Wetsuit’, it deals with having to mature and grow up, though this time to the narrator’s partner – ‘Well you wanna get young but you’re just getting older/ And you had a fun summer but it’s suddenly colder‘. It is most definitely the kind of song you put on when you’ve just got back from the club, checked your watch, seen the time is 1:37Am and regret every shot you took the night before. But it also has a real depth to it, and proves, easily, one of the debut’s highlights, particularly when Young finally crumbles, letting loose. Pete Robertson’s thundering heartbeart echoes continuously behind, flawlessly.
‘Somebody Else’s Child’ is a ‘hidden track’ of sorts on CD releases of the album, following ‘Family Man’. And, wow, it is in a whole other ballpark to the rest of it. It sounds like the track was recorded in some hastily-cleared backrrom; with a distance that seems symbolic given the song’s themes of adoption, forgotten lovers and estranged relationships. It’s Young and a piano. And, yeah, it’s a worthy closer.
I started this review with the expectation that it would be a straightforward one; praising a well-crafted indie-rock album. And I still think it’s a tremendous offering of pop-rock and post-punk, set to some great vocals. But actually, What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? is quite a bit more than that. It has its tender moments, too, and real personal stories from Justin Young – particularly in the album’s last half. It packs an incredible amount – both lyrically and sonically – into half an hour. And for a debut? Well, it’s quite bewildering.