Only the Vaccines could make an album of loss sound like the frenzied firing of a confetti gun. On their sixth album, the indie quartet square up to the departure of founding guitarist Freddie Cowan – who parted ways last year to explore other ventures – by keeping the tempo high and the tunes candy-coloured. They remain unbending, and unwilling, to leave the party, and yet, on this evidence, their returns are diminishing.
The album’s title sprouts from a misremembered Don McLean lyric – specifically, the line “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck/With a pink carnation and a pick-up truck” – hewn from his evergreen opus ‘American Pie’. While frontman and songwriter Justin Young has always exhibited that rarest and most precious pop music gift: namely, the knack to knock-up high-octane bangers that eschew naffness, and seemingly do so at will, his well is looking dry here.
The album is said to be inspired by not just the end of relationships, but time that Young spent on the West Coast of America. There is a nod to the country by way of a recurring glockenspiel that evokes the E Street Band.
Lead single Heartbreak Kid surges with unmistakable Vaccinated charm, yet it’s the sort of song we’ve heard from the West Londoners a million times over. And, throughout the album, there’s an over-reliance on the synthesizer, which is incorporated like a sonic tsunami, overwhelming and engulfing all before it.
Many of the choruses on Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations feel interchangeable as a result. You can list them: (in addition to ‘Heartbreak Kid’) there’s opener ‘Sometimes, I Swear’, ‘Lunar Eclipse’, ‘Primitive Man’, ‘The Dreamer’, and ‘Anonymous in Los Feliz’. What is most frustrating is that the verses are frequently impressive.
Their last outing, the ambitious dystopian concept record Back In Love City, was inspired. A thrilling break from their previous work, it was a varied affair that displayed top-tier writing. That’s lacking here.
Even so, a couple of songs rise above the mire. ‘Another Nightmare’, featuring the delicious lyric, “Roll your eyes and call me Bruce Wayne/Say, with all my years of therapy I should be Mark Twain”, sounds like The Vaccines cuddling up with The Cure at a post-punk/indie sleepover. ‘Love to Walk Away’ is another highlight, packed with red-blooded drama, it straddles the line perfectly between tension and release. More of these two and we’d have been in business.
Motown founder Berry Gordon once chirruped the directive, ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. The most interesting chapters in Pick-Up Full of Carnations are found in its verses, and it’s hard to escape the nagging sense that The Vaccines’ febrile, firecracker indie is either showing its age, or this has been written in haste. Pick-Up Full of Carnations is Paint by Numbers: Vaccines songwriting edition. Most disappointing.