ALBUM O’WEEK: Gomez – Whatever’s On Your Mind
Published on May 31st, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Long since cast aside by the hipsters, Gomez seem destined to be remembered as something of a curio, five young guys from Southport who mixed up a bunch of disparate yet beautiful colours in their novice’s palette and ended up walking away – deservedly – with the 1998 Mercury Music Prize for their self-recorded debut album Bring It On.
From that moment on, the UK music press seemed to decide that Gomez had used up all their goodwill and used their vague blues leanings – not least Ben Ottewell’s rasping, ravaged and utterly fantastic voice – as a stick to beat them with, proof positive that the band lacked authenticity and were thusly to be considered disposable. These critics were considerably wide of the mark.
Ever since Bring It On, Gomez have quietly gone about assembling a back catalogue matched only by Super Furry Animals over the last decade of British alternative rock/psych-pop. Their career trajectory has followed a similar path to that of the Welshmen: the initial, scattergun bolt from the blue, followed by deeper excursions into electronica, then a gradual ‘mellowing out’ process defined by luscious West Coast harmonies and an ever-increasing deference to the art of classic song-writing. Both bands have managed to maintain healthy cult followings without ever really bothering the top ten, both bands contain multiple song-writers and lead vocalists; and, poignantly, both bands boast the same line-up to this day as they did when they first arrived on the scene.
After their splendidly ragtag, whiskey-sodden second album Liquid Skin, the majestic comedown mood of rarities collection Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, the electronic acid sunshine of In Our Gun and the shambolic yet anthemic Split the Difference, 2006’s How We Operate came as something of a clean-shaven surprise. Resplendent in a sheen that bordered on ‘adult contemporary’ (ick), How We Operate shed the eccentricities and rough edges in order that its twelve immaculately conceived pop songs be allowed the space to breathe, a chance to photosynthesise. However strange it may have felt upon initial impact, Gomez had delivered a frequently euphoric summer soundtrack purely by dint of their song-writing, rather than the experimentalism that attracted much of their audience in the first place. A deceptively ballsy move and – despite disappointing UK sales – a resounding artistic triumph.
2009’s A New Tide wed this craft to some of the smokier, more spaced out elements of Gomez’s prior sound but, in assessing their latest effort Whatever’s On Your Mind, it is much more viable to use How We Operate as a direct reference point; for however much that release had appeared destined to go down as the band’s ‘pop’ record, Whatever’s On Your Mind – whether by design or not – is much broader in its appeal, especially at just ten tracks and thirty-eight minutes long. In short, it looks set to polarise opinion quite drastically amongst the Gomez faithful.
Join Rocksucker in casting a critical gaze over Whatever’s On Your Mind, track-by-track like…
A deep down ‘n’ dirty verse, featuring an In Our Gun-style brass section, gets this lead single underway in classic Gomez fashion, with Ian Ball getting his lascivious hiss on: “I could be the guy at the end of the street, high on caffeine / Ranting and raving, baby / But that’s okay, at least I’ve got options”. (A hot chocolate advert beckons?) The band gets to the money shot pretty quickly, a big ol’ ball of sunshine of a chorus which bursts open like a musical jack-in-the-box and rotates majestically amidst angelic harmonies and a disarmingly jangly guitar line. “All the things you’ll seeeee,” sing-songs Ball, “And the places you’ll gooooo / All the people you’ll meeeeet / Everybody wants you…” – then a textbook minor chord resolution on the words: “…or wants to be you.” You may at first be taken aback by how ‘happy clappy’ things get on this one – or even by such fluffily throwaway lyrics as: “I could try and learn what I unlearned, move into business / Make loads of money from gullible people…” – but the sugar rush becomes addictive. Seemingly an ode to a girl who’s been unwittingly placed on a pedestal by her own beauty while the narrator has the option of being whatever manner of nobody he so chooses, ‘Options’ may not be as arresting an opener as ‘Get Miles’ or ‘Shot Shot’ but it is a charming and beguiling trot through the sunshine nonetheless.
Gomez reference points: ‘Extra Special Guy’ (Split the Difference), ‘Hamoa Beach’ (How We Operate), ‘Girlshapedlovedrug’ (How We Operate)
2. I Will Take You There
A chugging, Beta Band-esque fade in is soon dolled up with a breathy chant of “can you pick me up and let me in and take me out?” reminiscent of the start of Supergrass classic ‘Pumping On Your Stereo’. The hitherto underused lead vocal of Tom Gray then comes in atop a delightfully thunderous and off-kilter drum rhythm from Olly Peacock, before the eponymous chorus is quickly ushered in like a mild psychedelic eruption of brass and harmonies. As with ‘Options’, ‘I Will Take You There’ includes a very distinct middle eight section – in this case, a Wild Honey-era Beach Boys call and response sort of thing – evidence of the band’s increasingly professional approach to song-writing. Don’t worry, though; those trippy, instrumental soundscape moments are still present and correct. Factor in a cheeky, sporadic, Blur-style keyboard lick and you’ve got yourselves the kind of track that only Gomez could make.
Gomez reference points: ‘Bring Your Lovin’ Back Here’ (Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline), ‘Rex Kramer’ (In Our Gun), ‘Meet Me in the City’ (Split the Difference)
3. Whatever’s On Your Mind
Stately drum rolls and regal piano plinks make the intro to the title track sound decidedly more Elbow than Gomez, but it’s not long until Ottewell’s immediately recognisable drawl enters the fray. An earthily attractive and well thought-out verse about someone or other “killing with kindness” again exits swiftly enough for the all-important chorus to make an early impression; and, in this case, what an impression it makes. Essentially a string-laden, solace-providing power ballad, ‘Whatever’s On Your Mind’ is much closer to the ‘Long and Winding Road’ end of the spectrum, as opposed to, say, ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol; by which we mean that it relies more on ingenious chord progressions than AM radio ‘tear-jerking’. “Please hold onto your heart of gold / While you struggle against the cold / You keep dragging that heavy load / Just let go…” – it’s a beautiful chorus, delivered by Ottewell with a true expert’s sense of timing and, while it’s probably too pretty to belong to the ‘everyman’, it should tug the heartstrings of most who come get to know it.
Gomez reference points: ‘Make No Sound’ (Bring It On), ‘We Haven’t Turned Around’ (Liquid Skin), ‘Touchin’ Up’ (Machismo EP)
4. Just As Lost As You
Now here’s where things start to get a little bit confusing. Even after several listens, the Ball-led ‘Just As Lost As You’ still sounds like the first Gomez song that could soundtrack one of the ‘sad’ scenes on an episode of Scrubs, and that’s pretty troubling. I just all feels so obvious – simple guitar riff ascending to major thirds and fourths, a pounding drumbeat, wash-over-you atmospherics – that you wonder if the band were challenging themselves to make something good out of such a trite motif. They almost succeed, some hymnal harmonies and an inventively laid-out vocal line in the verse salvaging matters somewhat, but the uncomfortable feeling lingers that this could be a (gulp!) Snow Patrol song. Who knows, it could end up scoring a big, fat hit; but at what cost? It is certainly unsettling to discover that Ball has been fraternising with Maroon 5 and Phantom Planet, the latter’s producer having worked on Ball’s 2007 solo album Who Goes There?. They may well be very nice guys but…you know…
Gomez reference points: ‘Notice’ (How We Operate), ‘Charlie Patton Songs’ (How We Operate), ‘Natural Reaction’ (A New Tide)
5. The Place And The People
Now things get really weird. A curious, thoughtful verse prods and probes for direction under another highly agreeable lead vocal from Gray, before the whole thing shifts suddenly into a chorus that sounds a bit like…well, a bit like Take That. No, really; it would be one of those Take That songs that everybody likes, like ‘Back For Good’ or that one from the Morrisons advert about letting something or other shine, but it’s still an overwhelmingly unexpected turn from a band that once recorded ‘Tijuana Lady’. It’s also hard to fathom listening to Peacock – such a brilliant, chaotically rumbling drummer – reduced to playing the kind of nursery school kick-step beat that underpins the chorus here, even imbuing it with much of its air of nineties-boy-band-ness. To make matters even more perplexing, ‘The Place And The People’ is, at five minutes and twenty-two seconds, the longest track on the album. It is not without its more familiar traces of Gomez – lashings of fuzzy synth, the occasional vocal effect, the odd whirring moment of psychedelia – but, in the main, this is pure chart fodder the likes of which you just wouldn’t have associated this band with. The busy production at least keeps things relatively colourful – and the breakdown line of “now that you know me very well / go to hell, my belle” could curry favour – but this track confirms the peculiar notion presented by ‘Just As Lost As You’ that Gomez are at their most unsettling the more mainstream they sound. Maybe that was the point all along.
Gomez reference points: Erm…
6. Our Goodbye
Immediately back to more familiar territory, a gorgeously understated, gently lilting keyboard line treated with due respect and consideration by Ottewell’s controlled vocal, before another early-arriving chorus brings the beauty back out like a sudden burst of sunshine after a light drizzle. A staccato string arrangement over a quite delicious chord progression gives ‘Our Goodbye’ the effortlessly classy air of a classic Paul McCartney ballad, as Ottewell romantically croons: “We should ride towards the sunset / ’til the road we drive on meets the sky”. There is nothing revelatory in this but, like one of The Divine Comedy’s more heartfelt numbers, its ‘loved up’ vibes spill over into a form of euphoria. They don’t write them like they used to, eh? Well, Gomez do, and it’s blissful.
Gomez reference points: ‘Sound of Sounds’ (In Our Gun), ‘Me, You and Everybody’ (Split the Difference), ‘Lost Track’ (A New Tide)
7. Song In My Heart
…on which Gomez again create something which you could quite easily imagine to be on a Radio 1 playlist. The actually-quite-convincing contemporary R&B stabs of the verse segue into another purely eponymous, synth-soaked chorus; and, sadly, one which could have been conceived by a far inferior outfit. It’s not that it’s not catchy – it’s certainly insistent enough to get lodged in anyone’s head – it’s just nothing special, the kind of thing that any two-bob electro-pop act could score a hit with. That’s right, it could well be a hit; it just falls well below the high standard that Gomez have set themselves.
Gomez reference points: ‘Machismo’ (Machismo EP), ‘Ruff Stuff’ (In Our Gun)
Filthy dirty bass stabs from the often-overlooked Paul Blackburn trade blows with pounding Peacock drums before the track quickly settles into the kind of quirky, exotic eighties pop sound that one might associate with XTC. “She’s gorgeous when she sleeps / Be careful not to wake the monster,” growls Ottewell before a simple yet effective chorus line of “you look so fine to me”: it’s not vintage Gomez but its playfulness and abrasiveness are far more in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from this band than much of the rest of this album. ‘Equalize’ seems to get dirtier as it goes on, before leaving the fray on an acoustic passage which repeats the “you look so fine to me” refrain, but with a much more fragile delivery. It’s good stuff.
Gomez reference points: ‘Ping One Down’ (In Our Gun), ‘Where Ya Going?’ (Split the Difference), ‘Airstream Driver’ (A New Tide)
9. That Wolf
Starts promisingly, with quick-marching drums fortifying a pleasing exchange between Gray on lead vocals and a harmonised backing vocal of “drive me away in your motorcar”, but very soon we’re introduced to a jangly chorus that could well have been penned – and just writing this will make Rocksucker die a little inside – by The Kooks. “The way she makes me feel / This love won’t last forever”: it’s high-school guitar pop which again could make Gomez very popular indeed but it doesn’t half feel strange coming from a band that once recorded ‘Emergency Surgery’ (okay, we’ve used that schtick once already, forgive us). ‘That Wolf’ could fit quite snugly into an episode of Hollyoaks or some such bilge, such is the overbearingly radio-friendly natureof the chorus, although it is arguably saved by a verse that’s sufficiently quirky to class it all as an exercise in subversion. At least you’d hope that’s what’s going on here.
Gomez reference points: ‘Catch Me Up’ (Split the Difference), ‘Girlshapedlovedrug’ (How We Operate)
This closing track gets underway sounding like something from one of The Flaming Lips’ early-to-mid-nineties records – which is a very fine thing indeed – before unfurling itself as an atmospheric, Ball-led odyssey through mystical, open-tuned guitars, menacing strings and fuzz bass and a jerky, edgy drumbeat which threatens to boil over at any second. Eventually, it all settles into an uplifting groove which carries the album to its conclusion, a solo Ball singing the words: “You can’t turn it off.” It’s an apt sentiment, given how ‘X-Rays’ demonstrates that Gomez clearly haven’t lost their knack for creating majestic mini-epics, making for a happy ending of sorts to an occasionally troubling journey.
Gomez reference points: ‘California’ (Liquid Skin), ‘Don’t Make Me Laugh’ (How We Operate), ‘Very Strange’ (A New Tide)
There is enough strong material on Whatever’s On Your Mind to bode well for the future but then there also a few tracks which, personally, Rocksucker wouldn’t even consider for a Gomez-only top forty. Ironically, it is the latter selection of songs that have what it takes to earn the band a much wider audience so, even if they’re not going to pacify the die-hards, you have to doff your cap to the craft involved. If someone told Gomez to make a pop record then they’ve done it really rather well; but here’s hoping that the next one is just a Gomez record.
Three and a half gnomes out of five!
Whatever’s On Your Mind is released next Monday, June 6th, on ATO Records.