There’s no doubt the four-piece have been reliable in penning indie bangers ripe for sticky dancefloors, pints of snakebite and lost weekends, and yet they linger on the periphery of the big leagues, peering through the window at those at the top table. Circa Waves seem forever destined for the boisterous melee of the festival tent rather than the mainstream appeal – and perhaps the sanitised restraint – of our main stages.
They return with Never Going Under, their fifth, and their most personal album yet, with songs composed by singer and guitarist Kieran Shuddall while the world was in the grip of the pandemic. A time when he also became a father. Both events course through the record.
The title track’s pandemic timestamp is displayed proudly with a lyric documenting love blossoming under lockdown. ‘This room was made for me and you / But no one gets high like we do / Kills the time like we do… Baby, they try to pull us down/But we’re never going under’, Shuddall yowls to the sort of dance-rock strut Kasabian might muster at their best.
This is followed by the snappy subterranean bass and clipped guitars of ‘Do You Wanna Talk’. If you were to don a blindfold for a musical taste test, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the work of their peers The Vaccines. The song is undeniably effective, but derivative to the point of distraction.
Likewise, album standout ‘Your Ghost’ might be the sort of factory-pressed, certified indie anthem purpose-built to get limbs dancing, but it also sounds like what might happen if ‘Feel It Still’ by Portugal. The Man and Foster the People’s ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ shacked up for a one-night stand and had a happy accident nine months later. Shuddall’s evocative lines, ‘I hope your ghost will haunt me / I hope I hear you calling my name at 3AM’ accompany an earworm that sets camp in your head like a belligerent squatter and refuses to leave. It’s brilliant.
It’s not all good though. The likes of ‘Electric City’ aims for MGMT-esque grandeur by melding waves of distortion decorated by a simple melody figure, but, well, it’s a bit naff; like reaching for the dessert menu at a posh restaurant only to be served with jelly and ice cream. Leave it in the kitchen, please.
Elsewhere, ‘Golden Days’ fares slightly better by possessing the sort of widescreen scope that would have Brandon Flowers smashing his blue-collar American rock records on the kitchen table in envy. Galloping drums and sustained synth provide a platform for Shuddall to deliver, ‘I wanted your love / Every single time / I needed your love / To make me more alive’. It’s a prosaic, hand on heart declaration of emotion that won’t win any Pulitzer Prizes for lyrical accomplishment, but sometimes it’s the sentiment that matters.
Some of the strongest songs arrive on the home straight. ‘Hold On’ is all slinky chords and tasteful understatement that not only shows another shade of the band, but also showcases Shuddall’s impressive production work. Likewise, the lolloping piano of ‘Want It All Today’ is an utter delight.
Both ‘Northern Town’ and ‘Carry You Home’ pick up the personal theme. The former talks of Shuddall’s father delivering him on the landing of their house, whereas the latter reflects on the birth of the frontman’s own child.
Whatever way you wish to cut it though, we return to the issue of Circa Waves’ identity. Never Going Under unfolds like a compilation album. And this is no crime. It’s a trick that many great bands have performed. Blur did it with Parklife. The Clash did it with London Calling. But here’s the rub: in both those instances, they still bore Blur and The Clash’s respective DNA.
Similarly, Oasis may have pilfered T. Rex’s ‘Get It On’ riff for ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’, but the finished article still sounded like the Gallagher brothers snarling through the speakers. What prevents Circa Waves from ascending to the top tier of indie-rock bands is their inability to transcend their influences.
That’s not to say there isn’t a hell of a lot of giddy, raucous fun to be had with these rambunctious, radio-friendly tracks. As a collective, they hang together as the best the band have committed to tape; not only picking up where Sad Happy left off but rivalling Different Creatures as the band’s crowning achievement. Never Going Under possibly even tops it.
It goes without saying that not all bands can be unique, just as not all bands can be headliner material. And that’s fine. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the festival tent is always a lot more fun anyway.