You do have to feel some iota of sympathy for the band. There are some perfectly adequate reasons for delay; not least if they want a healthy stack of vinyl pressed for their latest album, amid an ongoing shortage of the stuff, or they wish to tour Europe despite complications following Brexit.
Whatever their reasoning they would no doubt have wanted to kick-on from the success of their 2020 debut, Deep Down Happy – a spirited affair that sounded as if The Strokes were tasked with making a Britpop album.
That record not only bagged them a number 2 spot in the charts – narrowly pipped to the post by none other than Lady Gaga’s Chromatica – but also a Mercury nod. If you wanted to make an impact at the first time of trying, you’d have been hard-pressed to do better.
But sometimes it’s better to be sure of your next move before making it. And there isn’t much about Gulp! that feels particularly new, in a case of second album syndrome.
Kicking off with the rather irksome clamour of guitar feedback on album opener ‘The Game’ wouldn’t be a problem were it followed by something somewhat novel. But with as many “oohs” and “ahhs” as a gorilla enclosure, there isn’t much to really sink your ears into.
What’s more, for a band who’ve been criticised for taking pot-shots at the Goldsmiths background of fellow indie rockers HMLTD, despite having gone to Cambridge themselves, you would have thought they’d think twice about such pity-me lyrics as: “Oh yeah, that’s the game / Life’s hard but I can’t complain.”
What you could say – were you in the mood – is that what this album lacks lyrically and sonically, it makes up for in spirit. After all, Sports Team have carved out something of a name for themselves on the indie gig circuit, including with their annual bus trips to Margate and post-show pub antics. As this critic can attest personally, there’s no doubt they put on a good show.
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Middle tracks ‘Unstuck’ and ‘R Entertainment’ (already released) feel like decent, set-ready headbangers, even if they once more suffer from a lack of originality – the latter’s “Oh I do not need, the air that I breathe / The grass in my eyes, the moon at my feet” not moving much beyond a GCSE poetry class.
Yet this is an album review, not a gig review. And beyond some toe-tapping, this album sounds contrived in parts. What their debut did well was take the mundane and make something light of it – finding a beauty in the banal, like Dry Cleaning do with aplomb. Take Deep Down Happy opener, ‘Lander’, for instance, with its talk of “Aldershot, Camberley” and “Arthritis”.
But instead of leaning into that sense of the ironic, Gulp! goes back a step, playing on the indie-rock of old and trying to take itself seriously in doing so. But like the trite “whey hey hey” of ‘Getting Better’, it sounds a little forced.
There’s an attempt at something a little mellower, more soulful and heartfelt, in album closer ‘Light Industry’. But, likewise, nothing particularly grabs you – and they don’t help themselves by the irony of the lyric, “It’s only just another glass of exactly the same,” a message which could be applied to much of the record.
There have been plenty of poorer sophomore albums before. The Stone Roses’ Second Coming, for instance, often being heralded as one. And whilst, despite my critique, I’d still thoroughly recommend seeing Sports Team live (chasing after their special Gulp! tour van), this album falls into that category.
The band say “production issues” were the reason for the album’s delays. Just to put my head above the parapet for a moment: maybe they knew it just wasn’t ready. Maybe, like frontman Alex Rice’s approach to the band’s performance on Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show, still clutching a lyrics sheet, they were just slightly ill-prepared for the follow-up.
Gulp! is out on Friday 23 September via Island Records.