A band who are more than capable of releasing a decent rock song, Catfish and the Bottlemen have also been less than adept at developing their own sound, let alone rock music as a genre. Enter their third studio release: The Balance. The difficult third album. Have they done anything new? No – and while that’s pleasing to some, it’s holding back a band who do actually have potential.
I have to confess, I’m not a huge fan of Catfish and the Bottlemen. I seemed to miss the boat during the hype of their first two albums and I couldn’t see what they were doing differently that made them notable.
That’s the thing though; here is a band who have made a solid career out of staying firmly in their lanes. They know exactly what they are and exactly what they can do, and they seem reluctant to change or exceed that in any way. To some, that’s commendable – how many times do you see the phrase “I prefer their old stuff” online? (I rolled my eyes even typing that out) – but to others, those with constantly evolving musical tastes, it can come across as tired, lazy and unambitious.
To me, that’s the overarching feeling of The Balance. Yes, there are songs here that I like, just as there are on The Balcony and The Ride, but any of these 11 tracks could fit seamlessly onto either of those albums and you wouldn’t notice. I’m not saying they needed to reinvent themselves, but they needed to do something new.
Even before you start listening, you get the exact same as the previous two albums: a minimal, black album cover that looks like it might have been drawn in MS Paint. That’s fine for an album or two but now it just looks a bit naff.
I like minimalism a lot, but as a fan of album artwork, I wish they’d tried something else. You could easily walk past this in a record store and not notice it – partially because minimalism is starting to lose its effectiveness and partly because the cover of The Balance looks exactly the same as the previous two albums. If you want to keep the minimalism, at least change the colours; like The XX did for their second album compared to their first. Just change something. Anything.
You get track titles all one word long. Again; fine – but it adds to the feeling that they’re being painfully and needlessly stubborn.
There isn’t a lot of difference in the sound either. The production is much the same, the album is led by distorted guitars and thick drums, and Van McCann’s vocal drawl dominates the soundscape. The actual sound of the album, music aside, is excellent once again. Everything is where it should be, everything is audible and the tracks flow with a natural dynamic. I especially like the bass tone on The Balance.
Musically, the lack of development in the style is obvious, returning with Catfish’s usual Don’t Believe The Truth-era Oasis swagger. Each track (excluding Intermission) is a 3-4 minute indie rock song with anthemic choruses and no real connection to one another. While there’s nothing much that’s new here, it does work. Particular highlights are the chorus of Sidetrack, where the third chord brings in a nice contrast from the otherwise minor pattern, the frantic energy of Coincide; the disparity between the verse and the chorus of Overlap; and the timing switch in the chorus of Mission, which is pleasantly jarring. The preceding Intermission is good too, despite the horrible joke (it’s called Intermission because it goes into Mission, ha ha etc.) that I admittedly quite like.
The music isn’t without its grievances though. The lack of exploration from their self-drawn boundaries means that there are several moments that you feel like you already heard earlier in the album. The transition to the chorus of Conversation sounds exactly like the transition to the chorus of Longshot for one. The glassy lead guitar in Basically is far too prominent and buzzes around like a miffed wasp and the abrupt ending of Overlap (which, obviously, they also did on the final tracks of The Balcony and The Ride) is just annoying.
Lyrically, The Balance is much like its predecessors. Taking great influence from albums like Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not and other British indie rock from the last fifteen years, Van McCann’s lyrics are an attempt at making the everyday (and often mundane) into something witty and catchy. While the result isn’t horrible, it often feels like McCann is trying to force laddishness into the lyrics in an attempt to make them endearing, and the charm of the likes of early Arctic Monkeys (who made a taxi-ride home after a night out seem interesting) doesn’t translate as well here because the lyrics just aren’t as smart. There are also a couple of lines that just don’t make sense (to me), like this from Fluctuate:
“Just sat there sifting through my demos
That I’ve never had with someone”
What does that mean?
Thankfully though, McCann doesn’t mention cigarettes or smoking in general anywhere near as much as he used to, so that’s a definite bonus.
Musically, I do think Catfish have potential and in certain places you can hear that, but they’re so determined not to seem pretentious that it holds them back from exploring new and interesting musical choices.
I understand that no-frills rock is their ‘thing’, but after three albums, Catfish and the Bottlemen need to consider that doing the same thing over and over again will eventually stop working for them.
Changing your style as an artist is a risk, but there’s a reason it’s a risk so many musicians take. They might have to reinvent themselves several times, but that’s what musicians have to do to stay relevant. If the price of innovation is being called pretentious occasionally, then it’s a price worth paying.
The problem I think Catfish and the Bottlemen have is that they’re unwilling to pay that price, worried that trying something out of their comfort zone will backfire.
I’m not saying this is a bad album. In fact, as a collection of songs it’s fairly good. However, as an album, as a place in Catfish and the Bottlemen’s timeline and as a step forward, The Balance is disappointing, and the band needs to consider what to do next – whether to continue with more of the same or to take the plunge and try something different.