The Kooks, to me, are a little bit of an enigma. Their music is frequently lumped in with other UK pop-rockers like The Fratellis or Arctic Monkeys, and in some sense, I can tell why people do this. Alternative rockers from a similar geographical area breaking into the public’s consciousness at around the same time – it seems vaguely logical. However, I’ve always thought that the comparison is a little inappropriate for The Kooks – while the Monkeys’ debut record Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is a classic in its own right, The Kooks have displayed a greater emotional depth in their music. Think what you want about him as a human being; Luke Pritchard has an instantly recognizeable voice, as well as the ability to convey intense emotion with it.
The Kooks’ 2008 record Konk is full of heartfelt pop songs that manage to maintain their sharp, rocking edge. Tightly written, tastefully produced, The Kooks showed us an ability to be distinctive while working within set pop formulas. The subject of this review, 2011’s Junk Of The Heart, is their highly-anticipated follow-up. In some respects, this is the same old Kooks: simple, easy-to-listen-to melodies, Pritchard’s signature croon, etc. Yet the band makes a conscious effort to broaden their sound by including synthesizers and new styles of production. It’s tough for me to know exactly what to make of this change. On one hand, I’m always interested to hear bands alter their sound and try something new – that’s true innovation. But on the other hand, if bands make the change simply for the sake of changing, without attempting to fully integrate their new influences into their existing repertoire, it sounds forced and insincere. As much as it pains me to say, I think Junk Of The Heart places The Kooks on the forced side of that disjunct, and the quality of the record suffers as a result.
Take the ninth track on the record, entitled “Killing Me,” as an example. The intro passage to the song is dominated by a trite, 80’s pop synth pad that sounds like it was tossed in for the sole purpose of adding another instrument. The song itself is unremarkable – Pritchard croons with his standard style; it’s structured like every other pop song ever written. Becoming little more than background music after the first minute, it lacks any energy or distinctness. The fade-out of the track adds a chorus-like shimmer to the synthesizer tone that makes me think of The Killers’ Hot Fuss gone wrong. As much as it pains me to say, this comparison seems to be representative of the album overall.
The lead single for the record, “Is It Me,” is another exercise in mediocrity. Admittedly, the song features a driving rhythm with forceful guitar playing that initially makes it stand out, but once again, that synthesizer melody (which, to the discerning listener, should sound exactly like the melody employed in “Killing Me”) bogs the tune down – they sound more like Coldplay here than their old rockin’ selves. In the interest of fairness, however, the track is salvaged by a gritty punk rock bridge near the end.
This album begins with the title track, a song that I believe represents just how weak Junk Of The Heart is, all-things-considered. Their shameless stab at modern pop glory is evident even in the first few seconds of the album – the massive amounts of compression on the drum intro removes all trace of the human element – they sound like they could have been programmed on a keyboard. The cheesy Phil Collins synthesizer is ever-present; I just can’t get past how middle-of-the-road it is. Throughout the course of the record, the saving grace is Pritchard’s voice – a strong lead man can carry even the lamest of albums. Yet even Pritchard can’t carry a song when the lyrics he sings are this standard and soulless: “I wanna make you happy / I wanna make you feel alive / Let me make you happy / I wanna make you feel alive tonight.” A nice sentiment, certainly, but this song sounds more Maroon 5 than The Strokes. Pritchard’s words here lack the characteristic edge that made Konk an instant classic.
As was the case with ME & LP’s debut EP Chez Raymond, it kills me to give this album a bad review. The Kooks’ music represents some of the happiest memories of my life – it’s safe to say that Konk is one of my favorite pop records of all time. But when a band drops their edge so blatantly to pander to a mainstream audience already overflowing with lame music, I think it’s a really sad day. In a way, it makes sense that The Kooks went in this direction – they’ve always been a pop band and have always written songs that sound as good on first listen as they do after careful digestion. Yet I maintain that it’s possible to ‘go pop’ without losing your ability to craft memorable songs – consider The Mars Volta’s underrated 2009 LP Octahadron. When it comes down to it, I can imagine housewives liking this album, and am having a hard time enjoying it. Perhaps their new sound will grow on me, but in the meantime, I just can’t recommend this album, at least in comparison to their previous work. Maybe The Kooks will gain some new fans; unfortunately, they’ve lost me.
If you’re interested in Junk Of The Heart, check out The Kooks’ homepage.