Bursting onto the scene in 2015 with their very well-received debut album, Young Chasers, Circa Waves made it onto a short list of indie rock bands to keep track of. Although their first album wasn’t particularly innovative, it featured exuberant and gritty guitar centered indie rock, and an infectious lightheartedness that permeated the whole album. Four years later it seems as if the British band that hails from Liverpool is trying to shed its rugged indie rock identity and adopt a more produced and polished pop-rock sound in their third album, What’s It Like Over There?
Their intention to reinvent themselves was clear from the onset. Their third track “Times Won’t Change Me,” begins with a jazzy piano riff unlike anything featured on their previous albums. It’s enjoyable enough, but as you are waiting for the song to go somewhere it becomes apparent that you are headed for a dead end. The second half of the song is an exact repeat of the first half, and by the thirty-eighth time front-man Kieran Shudall chants, “Change me now” the song’s charm grows stale. The album has its fleeting moments of sonic pleasure, but track after track these bursts of inspiration eventually give way to derivative indie pop-rock tricks and banal lyrics.
That is not to say there are no bright spots on the album. “Movies,” with its propulsive drumbeat and energetic guitar riffs, is an addictive summer anthem perfect for any road trip playlist. It was a pleasant reminder of how adept Circa Waves can be at shifting tempo within a song and delivering catchy hooks. “Me, Myself and Hollywood,” leans into the band’s strength, which is the airy vocals and devil-may-care flare of Shudall. If Shudall could have been bothered to write more lyrics this song could have gone from very good to great.
Unfortunately, the bright spots are overshadowed by the meandering ruckus that is “Motorcade” and the contrived sentimentality of “The Way We Say Goodbye,”. “Goodbye” so dearly wants to elicit an emotional reaction from the listener, but it ends up sounding like Coldplay karaoke. A lot of the fault for the dysfunction of What’s It Like Over There? lays at the feet of Shudall’s songwriting. His lyrics were never a strength, but when your turning up the amps and the songs are led by the joy of blaring guitars, as was the case on Young Chasers, then the lyrics can fade into the background. But when you want to build songs around understated piano arrangements and feature slow love songs the lyrics come into focus and they must deliver some measure of depth or wit. Neither materialized.
The most frustrating part of listening to this album is that the talent of the collaborators is apparent. It is not bad enough that you can wholly dismiss it, but there is no payoff to be had. The edges that made Circa Waves raw and interesting have been sanded down, leaving something that feels corporatized. Perhaps this will lead to more radio spins. I would hate to see that, for fear that the wrong lesson may be learned.