The Kooks is a band full of people who shouldn’t ever dance at parties. They know every lyric, memorized every step, and have practiced their swagger ad nauseam in the mirror, but no matter how well they go through the motions, they’re never going to be less awkward.
The band’s fourth album Listen is similarly a perfunctory, bloodless affair. Despite the benefit of the band’s distinct palate influenced by everything from ’90s New Jack Swing, to paisley psychedelia, Listen is painfully familiar.
Occasionally lumped in with the new movement of faux-indie heavy hitters like The Naked & Famous and Two Door Cinema Club, this british foursome is yet another band valuing hooks and catchiness over bona fide, compelling songs.
As a large swath of the indie landscape has leaned further into ’80s synth-pop and post-punk, The Kooks is defiantly old-fashioned, cribbing from the likes of mod-rock staples like The Jam, harmonic gymnasts like Archie Bell & The Drells, and the anything-goes spirit of the Madchester scene.
The Kooks broadcasts its influences early and often. Opener “Around Town” slinks with a rubbery bass line transported from Sly Stone’s reject pile, and gospel harmonies ripped from Primal Scream’s tie-dye fantasia, Screamadelia. “Westside” is even more blatant thievery, swiping the (already second-hand) plush ’80s filigree of Phoenix’s 2013 Bankrupt!
These references are just proof The Kooks don’t have material capable of standing on its own.
If The Kooks aspired to be a retro-rock band like Tame Impala, these musical nods may seem flattering, but instead all these flourishes just add up to wannabe rockstar fantasies. The band writes from the perspective of the most clichéd rockstar: the dissatisfied narcissist who’s equally interested in the next skirt and the path to spiritual enlightenment.
The worst example of this self-indulgent navel gazing comes in the turgid “See Me Now,” which begins as a message to the singer’s dad before spiraling into a smug ego trip. “If you could see my smile/Would you be proud?/I’ve been in sticky situations/I fell in love with a girl who likes girls.” “Bad Habit” is equally dated with a musty Rolling Stones-like boogie peppered with a dose of misogyny and an ugly comparison equating “women” to “bad habits.”
“Forgive & Forget” is at least vaguely more danceable with a lurching backbeat and wurlitzer arpeggios beamed in from Earth, Wind & Fire. However, this relatively fluid groove highlights how much of nothing this band has to say about anything.
Other musical and lyrical detours fare from middling to excruciating.
“It Was London” dips its toes in politics, but stops before it’s ankle deep. “Down” is even more cringe-inducing at half R&B doo-wop and half stuttering indie-pop. One doubts Blackstreet hoped its legacy would be honored in an ad-lib that goes: “Down down, diggidy, da-down down, diggidy diggidy.”
The rest of the album is a blur with half-formed synth squiggles and guitar figures.
“Are We Electric” is blindingly cheesy; an initial “Off the Wall” homage that squanders its vintage synth tone for gibberish about being “electric.” “Sunrise” is more promising, a mixture of West African swaddle, a pirouetting guitar lead, and an interpolated strum of Archie Bell & the Drells’ immortal “Tighten Up.”
If the depreciation of songcraft is a consequence of constricting major labels looking for hits, or simply personal laziness, Listen showcases poorly written songs lacking sturdy spines. No amount of ornamental accoutrements or gussying up would make this album more substantive.
In the aforementioned “Forgive & Forget,” Luke Pritchard namechecks funk legends Sly & the Family Stone singing, “To people playing make believe/They say, ‘Can we get a little higher?’”
Whether or not they meant to psychoanalyze their own sound, there’s never a better mission statement than this line. The Kooks have long been playing a game of pretend, masking their incompetence with the tropes of other bands. The Kooks know how to put on a show, and the band certainly has plenty of toys to play with, but it’s clear throughout the album’s entirety that it’s all just an elaborate charade.
The Kooks – Listen tracklist:
- “Around Town”
- “Forgive & Forget”
- “See Me Now”
- “It Was London”
- “Bad Habit”
- “Are We Electric”
- “Sweet Emotion”