Magic Numbers ‘Alias’ – Review

2 Sep

It’s hard for me to listen to the Magic Numbers objectively. In the interest of full disclosure I feel I should say this up front. I have too much invested in this band and It’s too personal. Their debut album is one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s an album that I heard as an impressionable, hormonal 15 year old and thus it looms large in my memory. It’s an album that is so intrinsically linked to a specific summer that it acts almost as a time machine. Listening it, I am transported back in time and whenever I hear a new Magic Numbers song, I am that 15 year old. For that brief period of time I see things as I saw them then, I hear what I heard and most crucially, I feel the way I used to feel.

‘The Magic Numbers’ (and I’m trying to step out of myself and my memories here) was an album of warmth and sunshine. These were melodic pop songs built around the close harmonies of two brothers and sisters. There was a lifetime of love radiating from these voices coming together. It’s one of those albums where I could talk for hours about the details – the boring details that most people will tire of hearing about. The way that bass SOUNDS and how perfectly it jumps up in the mix. The crackle at the start of ‘Long Legs’. The melodica, such a rarely heard instrument, and the way it glides through the tunes. The hidden gen, ‘Hymn for Her’, tucked away as a secret track, that I always nearly forget about. It’s a lovelorn album, made with love, that is easy to love. The album that followed, ‘Those the Brokes’, recreated this feeling, to a lesser extent, then 2010’s ‘The Runaway went for a different, darker mood that still conveyed a reverberation of the original good vibe. It was an echo of an echo of an echo, but it still made me feel something good.

Maybe they’ve left it too long. Maybe I’m too far removed from that original moment. Maybe they’ve changed. Maybe I have. I’m sure we both have. Whatever the case, ‘Alias’ is a good example of why it’s unfair to pin your expectations on other people and It’s a reminder that past greatness is no guarantee of continued success. Magic Numbers clearly have no desire, or perhaps it’s ability, or ambition, to play the game they were playing 10 years ago. Where their debut was painted in primary colours with broad emotions, ‘Alias’ is strictly a black and white affair full of despair. It’s best explained by a lyric from the album’s mid-point; “From now on my love is in a minor key.”

But there is a way of creating a mood of feeling depressed without imposing depression on the listener. This fails to achieve that mood. ‘Alias’ is unrelentingly bleak from the off and it never lets up. The faults of previous albums, once less obvious or forgiven, are exaggerated and amplified. Songs are stretched out beyond breaking point (it takes 12 minutes just to reach the end of track 2), they lack clear structures and the band pace themselves all wrong. These are all accusations that could be levelled at the debut, but the songwriting was impeccable there; here it really isn’t.

Opening combo ‘Wake Up’ and ‘You Know’ are songs that meander around, searching for meaning that they never quite find. They establish the album’s predominant theme of coming to terms with loss. The lyrics read as a sort stream of consciousness; divergent thoughts strung together, questions left unanswered, depressed similes and bitter confessions hanging on a vague connection. But for that to work effectively, you have to have melodies that will carry the words and hold them together. These melodies aren’t strong. Musically they miss the mark as well. It’s all minor key miserablism, crashing drums and distorted guitar sounds. There is some build and release but mostly it comes across as confusion. As an opening to an album it’s fairly catastrophic and they never really recover from it; but track three ‘Shot in the Dark’ is much stronger, and in the bridge we find the first hint of past glory. The way Romeo’s voice is left alone with a gentle guitar strum at the 2.35 mark is reminiscent of ‘Wheels on Fire’, and then the bittersweet pull of the bridge gives me that summer feeling I talked about earlier. It may only be 30 odd seconds but it’s joy.

This leads to the album’s best stretch. ‘Shot in the Dark’ is the album’s first vaguely up tempo track and it has the best hooks on the record. ‘Roy Orbison’ is a sun kissed, violin caressed ode to lovesickness that stands out as the album’s clear centrepiece and finest moment. ‘Roy Orbison’ works cos it plays to the band’s obvious strengths. The harmonies are sweet and exenuate the song’s mood. The arrangement is sparse and relaxed, allowing the vocals to take centre stage. This isn’t the case elsewhere. The guitars are sometimes unusually loud for the band, and often drown out the harmonies. The drumming, so stoic on ‘Those the Brokes’ and brilliantly imaginative on ‘Runaways’, is often bombastic and brash. It’s another problem that could so easily be fixed and probably would have been if the band had worked with a producer. Here everything feels undersold and badly judged.

The second half of the album is generally stronger than the first. ‘The E.N.D’ and ‘Thought I wasn’t Ready’ are two mid-tempo, disco-lite songs that provide some relief from the tightly round rock. ‘Accidental Song’ has a nice melody and a more dynamic arrangement, whilst ‘Better Than Him’ provides some much needed major chords and a chorus worth singing along to. It’s a shame the momentum doesn’t continue to build, and unfortunately the final two songs end the album on a sour note. penultimate number ‘Enough’ is so forgettable I can’t even recall what it sounds like, even seconds after having listened to it, and ‘Black Rose’ is a return to the ill-conceived pastoral folk of ‘Restless River’. Breathy harmonies are all very well and good if the song can carry them, but ‘Black Rose’ is a cliched dirge that offers no sense of resolution to an album in desperate need of a positive one.

It’s never nice when one of your favourite bands let you down – not that Magic Numbers owe me or anyone else anything at all. They view this as their best album, and they have every right to see it that way, you may even enjoy it! But the band that I have lodged in my memory, that are nothing more than a figment of my imagination now, promised so much more than this. To you ‘Alias’ is fairly average indie-rock album, one that is sometimes good and sometimes poor, and mostly evens out to something fairly bland and innocuous. To me it’s a crushing blow that reminds me what has changed for the Magic Numbers, and what has changed for me. I wanted something from The Magic Numbers, but it wasn’t this. As I said near the start of this review, it is never fair to pin your expectations on other people. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there.’


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