As an art form, graffiti is raw, revolutionary, and inherently subversive. Its existence challenges accepted notions of civility, ownership and property; its illegality transforms its practitioners into outlaws beyond the confines of capitalism and the self-obsessed art world. And those of us who observe the work – a revolutionary act in and of itself given that we do not pay to do so – clearly can’t get enough. Remember the collective frenzy incited by Banksy’s New York residency? Exactly.
With that in mind, English Graffiti makes for a terrible title for the Vaccines’ third album. The record has very little in common with graffiti: it is neither subversive nor revolutionary. It never seeks to challenge its listener and it feels no need to provide any real sense of place. The lack of setting (an integral quality to street art) negates both the “English” half of the title and the “Graffiti” one.
If you’re searching for self-assuredness, however, you’ll find it in spades. Word of advice: you can only get away with a cocky song if said cocky song is also downright fantastic (see: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” by Oasis). Unfortunately for the Vaccines, English Graffiti can’t back itself up.
The band’s cockiness reveals itself in every gigantic punk riff, including the one anchoring “Radio Bikini”, a track that might hold some appeal if the Ramones had forgotten to write “Rockaway Beach”. No song is safe from the enormous guitars, which forces one to wonder if they know any other tricks. A few caveats: an 8-bit synth spices up “Minimal Affection” to semi-interesting results, they fuzz up a jangly riff that renders “20/20” unforgettable.
Too bad “20/20” marks the end of the not-unpleasant beginning. The band plods through the middle, sputtering out melancholic duds (“(All Afternoon) In Love”) along with semi-acoustic and thoroughly passionless declarations of desire (“Want You So Bad”). At its worst, English Graffiti functions as an exercise in sorta-punk, kinda-indie mediocrity.
But wait! Just when all hope is gone, the jubilant “Give Me a Sign” appears, the Vaccines as we fondly remember them in tow. After sitting through one uninspired effort after another, “Give Me a Sign” fills the role of light at the end of the tunnel or, better yet, oasis after miles of barren desert. The pitch-perfect synth matches the familiar exuberance and daring nature of the band we once knew. What a finale! What a finish!
Except not. In a textbook example of seizing defeat from the jaws of victory, “Undercover”, a baffling two-minute instrumental sweeps in and slams the lid shut on English Graffiti. Here lies the Vaccines’ first real failure.
So while English Graffiti does not demand we start tolling the bells, it does raise the stakes for the Vaccines’ next move. A spectacular debut and intriguing sophomore effort saved the band from ever having to redeem itself – not so any longer. The most pressing new experience, however, belongs to their audience who have never heard such a disappointing release from this band before. Long story short: everybody loses.