Maybe I was naïve to think that The Kooks had played all their best cards with Konk and Inside In/Inside Out, as partially proven by the underwhelming third album, Junk Of The Heart (apologies for that painfully obvious pun). Yet, the band’s latest experimentation was a risk that has paid off, proclaiming character and verve.
The first single, Down, gave us a strong indication of the path this fourth album would take, demonstrating the particular influence of hip-hop producer, Inflo, on the album. More noticeable is the increased vocal experimentation of Pritchard, who must have shared Mick Jagger’s mouthwash for the track. Down also represents the general, infectious catchiness that the album possesses, though somewhat lacking the sentimentality of previous successful singles such as Naïve.
The ‘fearlessness’ of making a first album that Pritchard describes has crept back into Listen, and signs of their first album do still pervade into their latest venture as heard in Sweet Emotion; nostalgic fans looking for some traces of Inside In/Inside Out may find salvation in this track, which possesses some rare compositional parallels with their previous work. But the fearlessness that pervaded their first album is a different breed to that which inhabits Listen. The keyboard solo is an unexpected addition and when placed side-by-side with the suggestive, Latino qualities of Sunrise, we get a demonstration of the widely experimental nature of this record.
Around Town and Westside also demonstrate that the number of varied sources the band draws upon has increased again, justifying their position as self-described ‘whores’. Who would have predicted the ‘percussion sonnets’ evolving from the influences of Bob Dylan, Chris de Burgh and The Beatles? Yet such influences are still present and we are occasionally thrown back to an ‘early Kooks’ sound’ such as in Bad Habit.
Forgive & Forget’s importance is paramount in distinguishing Listen from The Kooks’ previous work however, imitating their original style but with noticeably greater consistency and charisma, largely emanating from Harris’ (lead guitar) jazzy, acoustic chords. (The track also proves new drummer, Nunez, has excelled his initiation). To say the song illustrates a grown maturity from the band would do an injustice to their previous work; instead, Forgive & Forget reflects the band getting older. Much of the record’s lyrics support this sentiment and highlight the band becoming reflective - for an example, consider Westside’s echoes of Ooh La.
Some criticisms rest in what messages the album tries to convey – It Was London tackles big issues such as inner city riots and the ‘blame youth’ culture with an energy that such restlessness cultivates; influences from The Clash and The Rolling Stones are no more obvious than here. Critics concerns that a relatively ‘lightweight’ band can tackle such issues are misplaced and fundamentally undermined though, for a South-East band raised in Brit School and of similar age during the 2011 riots, are personally the most qualified to dabble with such contemporary issues (and add a few pounds to their weight class).
The experimentation of funk does disappoint occasionally however, and it is hard to dismiss NME’s claims that the charisma-lacking Are We Electric sounds like it arose from CBBC’s sound effects’ cupboard. It would be wrong to claim it negates the album’s vigour or consistency though.
Perhaps a particular strength of Listen is Pritchard’s own vocal loosening and added soul as in ballad, See Me Now. Neil McCormick sees this as a welcome additional dimension to his generally ‘abrasive’ voice and, nevertheless, it is emphatic of The Kooks’ evolution.
With such a punchy new style, ‘Can this really be the same indie band from Brit School?’ ask some commentators. It is preferable to look at The Kooks’ ride as a whole when evaluating this album; some believe Listen is an overindulgence into funk and soul, but alternatively you can argue that their experimentation has retained their distinctive indie character, while cultivating the seedling of fearlessness again. As Pritchard says, “This is evolution,” and one brimming with charisma. So no, this is not the same species of band that struck mainstream success in 2007, but is that a problem? Not in the slightest.