I want to say it's more mature than Vehicles and Animals but that's what other people said about the second Strokes album and that was shit and this isn't.
Athlete hold a special place on the shelves inside the Incendiary shed. They were the first band to be interviewed and featured on this site, after all, back when the screen was black and we had annoying little boxes flashing in the corners. We loved their debut album Vehicles and Animals and the fact that it still gets a regular play in my stereo proves that the band were worthy of the praise we gave them. Still, I've been given the task of reviewing their second album now and so I must switch into 'journo' mode for a while. The facts that they released a great debut and that, having met them, I can confirm that they are a down-to-Earth, likeable bunch of lads simply don't matter here. There's a new body of work for me to critique and so I have to do what Cameron Crowe has taught us and be all "honest and unmerciful" once again.
The second album is a big test for a band; especially nowadays. There was a time when record labels used to sign bands thinking they had promise and let them record four or five albums and build a career over time; but that's not allowed now. Marketing rules and money is the bottom line; so you have to have a few good singles in your locker from day one and you have to have a funky haircut and you have to mime on Saturday morning television and everything. For the record company to have any faith in you, you have to sell big from day one. They'll book you to play a small club tour and if that sells well, you'll do a larger club tour and then another one and then, a year and a half later, you play the 4-5000 seater indoor arenas whilst you can, because the record company realize that they've milked every drop of money out your debut album possible and have noticed that even your most devoted fans are sick of hearing the same ten songs played live over and over again. Having reached this point, when you're knackered, exhausted and totally drained, having lived in Groundhog Day and under each other's noses for the past couple of years you, the band, are then supposed to go back into the confined space of the studio and pluck another great, popular, radio friendly album out of thin air so that the record company can make you repeat the process all over again. I tell you, it's no wonder so many bands make a complete mess of their second albums nowadays. They're just under too much pressure.
There's also another kind of pressure for the band to cope with and this one is more important; they now have a fan base to satisfy. Debut albums are made by the band for their own entertainment in the hope that someone will like it. The second album is made by a band realizing that they have an audience and that they have to please them. Again. It's this pressure that is often the cause of a bad second album. Most of the time it's because the band have tried to replicate themselves, producing an album that sounds like the first one, but without the charm, integrity and passion that filled their debut. (Stereophonics spring to mind.) I'd list The Strokes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Interpol, Starsailor and The Thrills as examples of recent bands that have released disappointing second albums. The Strokes lost their energy, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club lost their power, Interpol lost their focus, Starsailor found God and Phil Spector and The Thrills ran out of ideas altogether. Now it's Athlete's turn.
I'll put this simply shall I? Tourist is a remarkable album. Remarkable in that it still sounds like an album that the band have made for themselves, rather than to cater to an audience and for that we should applaud them. It still sounds like Athlete, but this is no rehash of Vehicles and Animals; in fact for most of the time it sounds absolutely nothing like its predecessor. Now that may turn off some fans but it has me grinning with delight. I want to say it's more mature than Vehicles and Animals but that's what other people said about the second Strokes album and that was shit and this isn't.
Tourist has a completely different atmosphere to Vehicles and Animals. Where their debut was bouncy and filled to the brim with sing-a-long-a melodies and smothered in loops, clicks and other weird noises; Tourist is a lot more focused and slightly mellower. They still have the sudden tempo changes (opening track Chances being a great example) and there are a lot of chirps and clicks here but they're used to create a totally different mood. If Vehicles and Animals was designed to make a night down the pub more entertaining; then Tourist is an album for a long bus journey. It's a wonderful album to listen to on your walkman.
The lyrics hold the clues to understanding these changes. Despite the fact that most of the music press described Athlete as similar in sound to bands like The Flaming Lips and Grandaddy; Vehicles and Animals was, first and foremost, a British album. It's about London, and Deptford in particular and is totally immersed in the place. Songs like Westside and You Got The Style are written about Deptford, by lads from Deptford and living in Deptford. Even on El Salvador, where they're talking about flying to foreign countries to shoot videos and signing to a label; they talk as lads living in and around Deptford wondering what is happening to them. If Vehicles and Animals is the sound of a band on the inside looking outwards; then Tourist flips that around and is the sound of a band on the outside looking in. It's still about Deptford in many respects, or to be clearer, about 'home' but the lyrics are a lot more reflective.
It's understandable really, when you think about how much time, over the past two years, that Athlete have spent on the road, away from home. It's an album about missing friends and loved ones, about leaving home and hoping, somehow, to remain in contact with it. So we get lines like "If I had the chance to start again/Then you would be the one I'd come to find" (Chances) and "So when I see you next, we'll make the most of it." (Half Light)
Tourist sees the band coming to terms with their new career, "This should be the centre/this should be the time of our lives," (Never Running Out) getting lost in the process, "I would like someone to make a map/Mark my home and draw some lines that match," (Street Map) and making promises to people back home, "When everything around is gone I know/You are, first on my list" (Yesterday They Threw Everything At Me).
Musically, there is a bridge between the debut album and this; with Modern Mafia; the one bouncy anthem on here, and Yesterday They Threw Everything At Me being the two songs that sound like they could belong on Vehicles and Animals. Elsewhere, everything is a lot more focused, a lot more structured. The strings and synthesizers are more prominent and the songs, though probably containing as many loops, clicks and whirls as anything from the debut; don't sound like they are. Like I said previously, the mood has changed to something more somber and reflective, but they are still playing around enough to stop them from falling into the Keane/Coldplay bracket thankfully.
In the end all there is to say is that Tourist is, as far as I'm concerned, a step in the right direction. I admire the fact that they've tried to do their own thing; they've managed to develop their sound as a band and have crafted an album that is structurally a lot more solid than their debut and it feels like a complete work rather than a bunch of unrelated songs. It sounds great on a walkman, it'll sound fantastic live and I look forward to seeing where this band go next; they might just be in this for the long haul. Whether it remains on my stereo rotation in the same way that their debut has remains to be seen, but there's no denying that Athlete have created a fine album with Tourist and I couldn't have asked any more from them than that.
Words : Damian Leslie