Wednesday 2 November 2016

the 0161 and then some: mapping the rendezvous with the courteeners

writing this review is one of the most difficult things i've done in a while, as the courteeners are a band i've loved dearly ever since i first heard st. jude nearly seven years (!!) ago. 

picture the scene: it was 2010, and the indie scene was at its peak. bands like arctic monkeys, arcade fire and foals captured the hearts of fans worldwide, and i was one of them. i was however, a closet pop music fan, and it would be several years before i would openly admit to enjoying artists such as nicki minaj and rihanna. 

it's only when i look back at the courteeners' discography that i realise the impact their music had on me. at the time, their 2011 album falcon fitted in nicely with the other indie artists who populated my ipod, and i spent hours searching for each and every track on youtube, then converting them (illegally) into MP3s. i'll admit now that i did feel pressure to Be Cool and fit in with all the other Indie Kids at the time, something i didn't shake off for another few years, but my love for the courteeners was always genuine. 

as i've mentioned before, part of their appeal stems from the fact that they feel like one of our own for everyone who comes from manchester, creating a real sense of community. never have i felt more at home than when i've been crammed into a sweaty venue, standing shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of cider soaked fans singing every word. it's the reason why i've put up with the pushing, the shoving and the inevitable beer-over-the-head, having seen the band live six times over the last five years. i'll never forget how it felt seeing them that first time at haigh hall in 2011; when liam walked out and the first few chords of the opener started, i felt like i belonged to something, though i wasn't quite sure what. 

fast forward to 2016 and it's safe to say that things have certainly changed. for one thing, i'm now out of the pop closet, wholeheartedly embracing my love of cheesy pop and disco, after i went to see kate nash back in 2013 and noticed the looks of disgust from the people around me as i danced to party in the USA before she took to the stage. that, and the aftermath of my first ever breakup, inspired me to just Be Myself and not care about whether people think my music taste is cool or not. a year later i found myself leaving home, and though i didn't know it yet, the greatest city in the world (in my humble opinion) to start a new life in surrey for university, something i've written about extensively in this post

nevertheless, the magic of the courteeners never wavered, and i devoured ANNA, released in 2013, and 2014's follow-up, concrete love, with as much fervour as the first time i heard st. jude. if anything, my love for them grew stronger as i realised how much i missed home and how important each and every lyric now seemed in the wake of me leaving manchester. however, by the time 2015 rolled around and i saw them for the sixth time at heaton park in june of that year, something felt a little... off. 

this feeling first started to creep in when i got a last minute ticket to see them at the 02 academy brixton in november of 2014. they put on an incredible show, and it was nice to have a part of home with me when i was physically so far away, but one thing was missing, and it was the mancunian accents. the band may have travelled a few hundred miles for the gig, but the charm that first drew me to them seemed to have been left behind. 

so when i was standing in the crowd at heaton park - distinctly further back than i was used to as my mother insisted she didn't want to be caught up in the crowd of sweaty, beer-throwing revellers - i was struggling to conjure up the excitement that once came so naturally to me upon entering a venue to see the band years before. perhaps it really is possible to have too much of a good thing, because not even the sunset and the colourful flares set off in the crowd - something of a tradition at a courteeners gig - was enough to lift my spirits. the fact that it was freezing, despite being the middle of june, also didn't help. 

still, life carried on, and it wasn't until august of this year that the band announced that their fifth album, mapping the rendezvous, would be released on the 28th october, three days before my 21st birthday. it should have been a sign that good things were in store, and would hopefully be enough to reignite the love i'd had for this band since i was fifteen, but when i listened to the album the other day, it fell a little flat. i was struggling to put my finger on why, until i read some other reviews of the album in preparation for writing this post. 

NME gave mapping the rendezvous three out of five stars, and i totally understand why. following a spate of lacklustre singles, including no one will ever replace us, kitchen, and de la salle, my expectations for the rest of the album were fairly low. it took weeks for lead single the 17th to work its magic on me, and i'm wondering if it will take a couple more for me to fall in love with the few tracks i do like on the album. this review also gave me an answer as to why this album was falling short of its predecessors, and it came in the shape of this quote:

"to the ears of their detractors, (the) courteeners will always sound unexceptional, but in the eyes of the faithful, ‘mapping the rendezvous’ will only make them more irreplaceable."

this is true of any band or artist who has amassed a large following; whatever one direction, britney spears or lady gaga (siednote: how disappointing was joanne, both the song and the album overall?) puts out, their legions of loyal "stans" will lap it up, for better or for worse. in the case of the courteeners, it seems to have worked against them for the best part of the last five years. for those who love them, for those who hail from our beloved manchester, for those who found a home away from home in their lyrics, no one can ever replace them, and i firmly believe that their appeal will never wane. i suspect however, that's because i'm incredibly biased. i've heard people refer to them with some disdain, shrugging them off as just a "manchester thing", and perhaps that's where they're going wrong.

take (my latest obsession) the 1975, for example. their lyrics have always remained geographically ambiguous, so that fans the world over can listen to them and relate. i find myself once again referring to this (excellent) review of carly rae jepsen's last album, in which they discuss the appeal of "narrative free" pop; music that can be relative to anyone, at any point in their life, regardless of where they live or who they love. their foray into pop music, something they are unashamedly embracing, may also have helped their fan base to expand since their second album was released in february this year. 

it's frustrating because i so desperately want the courteeners to reach their full potential. why should they be defined - and chastised - by the fact that they hail from the north of england? sure, their sound pays homage to the great mancunian bands that came before - oasis and the stone roses spring to mind - but flickers of experimentation can be heard throughout their back catalogue. on 2014's ANNA, they began introducing more acoustic, piano-led tracks into their sound, making tracks like dreamers and saboteur some of my personal favourites. on mapping the rendezvous, this same stripped-back sound makes a return, and it seems to me that the band are at their best when they don't try to do too much. the simplicity of finest hour, coupled with liam's excellent songwriting, makes it my favourite track, and the 17th sees them experiment with an unconventional song structure, a sliver of synthesizers snaking their way into the latter half of the song. 

if their foray into pop continued, i have no doubt that this mancunian trio could truly take over the world. in the aforementioned song, front man liam swears he's never written a cliché before, yet the songs on mapping the rendezvous very rarely take them out of their comfort zone. even the other highlights, most important, tip toes, the dilettante and modern love feel like they've been done before, the production often clumsy, like they're trying to pack too much into one song, and i fear the glory days might be over for one of my favourite bands. 

make no mistake, tracks like the opener and not nineteen forever will always have a special place in my heart, but is that just because i've attached my own memories to them? the enduring appeal of the courteeners is at once a blessing and a curse; nostalgia means i'll always cherish the memories this band has given me, but in order for them to move forward, taking old fans with them while amassing new ones, their sounds needs to expand, create something that's all their own without detracting too heavily from what made them great in the first place.

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