Athlete – Black Swan
Black Swan, the fourth album from English-quartet Athlete, is an enigma of an album and might just drive me nuts to describe. The album, their first on Fiction Records, seems to want to follow the lead-off vocal line of the album “I’m on fire and nothing’s going to hold me back.” While I definitely thought the rest of the album was going to be like that, I was quickly mistaken. By the end of the album, I was better off describing the album with a line from the closing track: “This is my Rubik’s Cube/I know I can figure it out.” Sadly, I don’t think I can and I’m not entirely sure if Athlete could either.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that the album is bad. There is just nothing extremely news-worthy on here save two or three songs to appease people other than the hardcore fans of the group. The lead-off track (and their first single) “Superhuman Touch” is just that though. Riddled with electronica influences, the song takes you to another plane where you might actual feel the superhuman touch singer Joel Pott goes on and on about. The hooks are there, the vocal melodies are unique, and the driving beat keeps your attention the whole way through. But that’s one song out of ten and the majority of the album can’t even claim one of those three qualities. The hooks seem to wander in & out like a band unsure, the vocal melodies seem too easy for someone capable of a hit like 2005’s “Wires,” and after that first song, the driving beat is almost lost for the rest of the album.
Of course, the album also seems to just be hiding under the shadows of their influences and I’d be remiss not the mention it. While most English alt-rock/Indie rock bands are compared to the likes of Radiohead and Coldplay, I don’t think I can listen to their songs and pinpoint the song it reminds me of so quickly. Within seconds of listening to “Light The Way” & “Magical Mistakes,” I quickly made the connection to Coldplay’s “Life In Technicolor” and Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” respectively. They aren’t carbon copies of the songs, but it’s no doubt that the band probably swooned over both band’s latest albums in the two year period between their albums. The imprint is definitely audible here. I’m sure this is something that has been said before too, but it is a pretty big issue. When you have a band on the tip of your tongue to describe each song after the first minute, it’s not a good thing.
But again, it’s important for me to re-assure you that the album is not bad: it’s just not great. The album is just kind of there. It contains gems like the aforementioned “Superhuman Touch” as well as the title track “Black Swan Song” and the closing track “Rubik’s Cube,” both of which show of the band’s creativity extremely well. Spaced between these though are songs I challenge you to remember the chorus to after it’s done. It’s harder than it sounds too; trust me, after three back-to-back listens, I still for the life of me can’t place the song “The Unknown.” While no song on the album will make you want to turn it off, there’s not many songs on here that I could see someone actively wanting to listen to.
Overall, the band has a really good sound that definitely appeals to a lot of people, especially anyone who was a fan of their previous works. But that sound never evolves or goes above what you think it should. I doubt even fans would admit this is a great album or their best work. Each time your expectations are raised, the next song doesn’t do much to keep the bar high and by the end of the album, you’re wondering where Athlete’s new album went while you quickly delete almost half of it from your playlist. When the band truly does get on fire with nothing to hold them back like the first line of the album says, the result will be amazing and I will be first in line to buy that album and first to praise it. But until then, I’ll listen to “Superhuman Touch” & “Rubik’s Cube” and hope for more like it.