At last, the comeback album everyone has been waiting for. After three years, a pandemic and some patience, indie rockers, The Vaccines, are back with their fifth ‘child’ – a concept record of sorts – Back in Love City. And oh, is it glorious. Recorded at the Sonic Ranch in Texas, all of its tracks took on varying forms over the years, ultimately settling into the shimmering cradle of the fictitious ‘Love City’, a place full of wonder, crime, vengeance and human soul.
The album begins with its titular track; a song the band themselves envisioned as the intro music to some protagonist trailing down the highway, heading back to that mythical place. And it truly feels like that. Honestly, the whole record could be a complete soundtrack to one of the best, obscurest 90s anime series out there. The chugging chorus and Morricone-esque guitar makes for one hell of an opener.
‘Alone Star’ was one of the first bits of new material we heard ahead of release, performed live. It’s guitarist Freddie Cowan’s favourite, though, in all honesty, I wasn’t really taken with it on first listen. Then I heard the album version, with all its gloss bells and whistles, and I’ve really started to love it. You just can’t beat that age-old, cliché lines, ‘You are not alone’. It’s cowboys on LSD; rallying that Wild Western vibe.
The first single released from Back in Love City, however, was ‘Headphones Baby’. For a song I listened to pretty much non-stop since its release in May, it’s pretty telling how much I adore it all these months later. It introduced us, informally, to the idea of a ‘Love City’, to who the Vaccines now were, and where they were headed. It’s still an incredible track, and brings nostalgia back to a place I’ve never even been to. The lyrics are dark, but you won’t even know in this ecstasy-cradled chorus and dream-lulling vocals from frontman Justin Young.”I think [the] Vaccines have always been very pop but, like all great pop, there is a deep underlying sadness, darkness and desperation,” he wrote during a recent Twitter listening party. And this album backs that up all the way.
When ‘Wanderlust’ was played ahead of Love City’s release (at the Lafeyette in London, for a Twitch streaming gig), I was hooked. That guitar is a piercing bolt of lightning through the open sky. Young’s howling vocals get lost in the fuzzy hangover of production that couldn’t be more appropriate. For those of you questioning where the Vaccines misplaced their rock ‘n roll libido, I reply with a question of my own: when did they ever lost it?
‘Paranormal Romance’, unlike for others, wasn’t really sold to me on first listen, which was a live debut at the band’s Kentish Town gig back in July. It’s got tonnes of references to nostalgic bits of media; from Hercules and Conan the Barbarian to Phantom of the Opera. It’s quite a bit different from everything else the Vaccines have done before. In the flesh, in the studio, however, it’s just winds you. It really takes you off your feet. That galloping drumbeat in the chorus reflects just what Cowan iterated in describing the album as ‘Frontier Rock’. It’s ‘cinematic’, Young says, and he couldn’t be any truer.
‘El Paso’, meanwhile, is also on the cards for Fan Favourite, with Young rating the lyrics as his most personal on the album. Then again, they were also written in five minutes on the way to a gas station; hence their cryptic nature at points (‘We’re good news junkies/ so play that shit funky/ and give us some more-isms/ four on the floor-isms’). Either way, it’s the dreamiest ballad on the record – and made for night settings. A syrupy tonic that goes down easy.
‘Jump Off the Top’ was written around the same time as 2018’s stand-alone single, ‘All My Friends Are Falling in Love’, and has been played live pretty regularly ever since. Finally, we have a released, studio version, and it sounds amazing. A touch more ‘enveloped’ than the stripped-back onstage original, it packs the same vigour and voltage. ‘Jump…’ is an old-school, simple pop rocker for fans, and it knows it. As Young noted, the lyrics hide a darker side to them, concealed in layers of sweet, popping candy and just the right amount of guitar. – “I like how even though we try to challenge ourselves on every record, we can always find space for a 2 minute pop punk song,”, he added, and again, he’s not wrong. What Did You Expect… had ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’, English Graffiti had ‘Handsome’. Now we have one better.
In my opinion though, the album’s shining moment comes in the form of ‘XCT’. One of the band’s heaviest to date, it’s full on venom, anger and retribution – topped with just a spash of modern Vaccines pop. Following on from the record’s quasi-conceptual ‘Love City’, the song’s title is moderately clever wordplay on ‘Ex City’; this idea of a dark underbelly, a hidden parallel – Love City’s Hyde. And I have to admit, I see the influences of Philip K. Dick in a way I never have before; a three-minute rock song.
Clearly the band like it, too, as it was one of the album’s few non-singles to make its debut live at a recent gig. Whether it’ll stay a live staple, who knows? But it should be. Whilst it may not be the ‘almost industrial, or nu metal’ sound Young foretold, it’s a blazing anthem nonetheless.
By now, one may have guessed that the lyrics of BILC are an interesting mix; of nostalgia, personal reflection, homages to distant memories and whatever Young finds in the mental equivalent of his kitchen drawer. The songwriting on ‘Bandit’ isn’t laughable, but this certainly feels like a track carried by the simplistic riff. Or maybe the riff is just that good (and it’s scorcher). It’s a bit ‘glammy’, says Young, and the boys do it good. I really feel the 80s nostalgia on this one; of a summertime album set to dark mode.
Named after a 2018 documentary of the same name (on the subject of idol culture in Asia), ‘Peoples’ Republic of Desire hits back with a stomping backbeat and enough vigilante swagger to rival the music video to ‘I Can’t Quit’. ‘We’re guns for hire/ In the Peoples’ Republic of Desire… Leading suppliers/ to the Peoples’ Republic of Desire’ – fantastic. As found myself slipping deeper and deeper into the unfamiliar material of side two, I grew more concerned about this winning streak lasting all the way to the last note. Well, we’re three away from the end and ‘Savage’ refuses to let up. It’s just a great, straight-forward slice of pop rock; Young offering up the indifferent audacity of relaying his phone calls to God, and rolling his eyes at the results. ‘Girl you’re a savage/ and more than your average/ I wanna be ravaged all the time’. Damn, Justin.
Young was quick to put some level of distance between ‘Heart Land’ and initial conclusions. It’s not a statement about the current state of the land of life and liberty. It’s not a cheap, pseudo-political jab. It’s essentially a love letter (in list form) to what America feels like when you’re younger, naïve, and in search of a faraway place. And it’s really quite a beautiful ode to that forgotten, made-up realm.
But how do you close out an album like Back In Love City? A staggering, thirteen-track long concept album that was three years in the making; belated by a pandemic? Well, with ‘Pink Water Pistols’, a song that puts maybe even the group’s debut climax to shame. It’s Young’s personal favourite, and I can see why. ‘Pink Water Pistols’ builds and builds, crescendo-ing into a hauntingly beautiful composition, backed by calls from the dreamy ether – embodying everything Love City aimed to be. As a place, and an album. It’s a fitting finale to this performance.
You may have already sensed this, but Back in Love City is genuinely one of the best albums of recent history, in my opinion. It’s joy, it’s heartbreak, it’s sadness and triumph. It puts you in another world, another time – somewhere familiar, but wholly conceptual. Somewhere only you know. It’ll trigger different emotions in different people, but one thing is for sure. It rocks, and it jives, and it does everything flawlessly. Love City is where we all wanna go; especially after listening to this.