Putting it mildly, The Darkness are not like other bands. Should their pantomime act and output be filed under the ‘novelty’ label? Or are they just a hangover from a time when serious music was just sillier? Does the very fact we feel that we have to ask such questions say more about our own, more self-important musical era than it does about the band themselves?
The answer to all these questions, as it always is with The Darkness, is yes, only more. It’s hard, therefore, to judge the output of such a singular act as you would any other band. Their songs can largely be judged according to two criteria – a) are Justin Hawkins lyrics hilarious? And b) would the rest of the track stand up without them? Though the very best of their songs (e.g. ‘Barbarian’, ‘The Horn’ and ‘Black Shuck’) tend to succeed on both counts, it is possible, if they manage to truly ace just one or the other, for a song can excel regardless.
Their last album, 2015’s ‘Last of Our Kind’, is a perfect example of this. After the last strains of its sublime, ridiculous and mildly homoerotic Viking saga opener faded away, the rest of the album was fairly straightforward. The double-entendres and cock rock parodies/tributes (with The Darkness the line is too thin to be seen with the naked eye) took a back seat in favour of some unironically excellent songwriting from the Hawkins brothers. It was brooding, bruising, black and metallic but, most importantly, it showed the band that they didn’t have to try and remake their debut each time they went into a studio.
Sadly, this lesson seems to have been forgotten quickly. ‘Pinewood Smile’ is a fine album that fails to capitalise on the gains of its predecessor. Instead of pushing the music forward, the band largely try to recapture to lyrical absurdity that made ‘Permission To Land’ such a hit (‘Happiness’ straight up features the line “Let us make love on the rocks”), forgetting that that particular record also boasted the tunes to make such silliness stick. There are some genuinely laugh out loud moments. Justin Hawkins screaming “All the pretty girls and their m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mums!” like a coked-up Olly Murs crashing a PTA meeting on the opening track and later boasting that the band are “Never gonna stop shitting out solid gold” on ‘Solid Gold’ is funny as fuck on first playthrough; but the licks beneath Justin’s tongue never quite match up, ultimately harming the record’s relistenability.
The inclusion of both ‘Buccaneers Of Hispaniola’ and ‘I Wish I Was In Heaven’ also damages the album, the former because its brilliantly thunderous chorus reminds the listener of what made ‘Last Of Our Kind’ The Darkness’s greatest album, the latter because it’s a sweaty turd of a track. The best songs on ‘Pinewood Smile’ are, oddly for such an overblown act, the gentlest. ‘Why Don’t The Beautiful Cry’ is a the only stone cold instant classic here, a beautifully harmonised, lighters-in-the-air anthem that somehow channels heart as well as hilarity (“We are all just bubble and squeak, In the frying pan, the frying pan of life”). Closing track ‘Stampede Of Love’ pulls a similar blindside, building up two minutes’ worth of slide guitars, mandolins and acoustic plucking before Dan Hawkins engorged solo penetrates the song with a passion.
‘Pinewood Smile’ retains just enough of the band’s flare, fun and imagination to keep it from languishing in the bargain bin with ‘Hot Cakes’ and ‘One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back’. It’s just sad to hear the spark of reinvention that ignited their last powder keg of an album confined to a handful of tracks on a largely mediocre album. They can do better. They have done better. They will do better again.
Words: Josh Gray
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