Like pretty much every other band covered for Sonic Doom so far, I would imagine a large number of people would be surprised to hear that the Kaiser Chiefs are still alive and kicking.
After a brief couple of years in the mainstream spotlight, they (quite predictably) suffered from ‘difficult second album syndrome’ and haven’t really bothered the high end of the charts since then. Personally speaking, when the single ‘Ruby’ from sophomore effort Yours Truly, Angry Mob stormed the airwaves, I dismissed it as more of the same and essentially ignored them from then to date, assuming they were doomed to perpetually tread the same musical path for years to come. Who really wanted to listen to more (to borrow a phrase) ‘football hooligan music’? However, very surprisingly, this was probably the most rewarding Sonic Doom I’ve undertaken yet.
The lads from Leeds’ first outing wasn’t actually 2005’s Employment as most would remember, but a much more low key affair under the name Parva, entitled 22, released in 2003. A full copy of this was hard to locate, but from what can be pieced together from various scraps online, it sounds like a predictably raw, timid but surprisingly engaging effort. There’s very little in the way of the Lad Rock that would become their trademark once they broke into the charts, but there’s more driving songwriting here than would be found on their two breakthrough subsequent efforts.
Speaking of which, I remember their 2005 debut proper Employment quite well, as it’s the only Kaiser Chiefs album I’ve ever owned. Looking back on it now, it hasn’t aged as well as you would expect. I can’t reconcile the warm critical reception the album received to what I’m hearing when I listen to it today. Employment doesn’t sound like 2005, and if it’s trying to be a throwback to the bygone era of Britpop, it misses its mark by some distance. Granted, it contains some decent hooks, and there’s no doubting that singles ‘I Predict A Riot’ and ‘Oh My God’ fulfilled the listening public’s need for digestible guitar pop at the time.
Yet, away from the radio-friendly fodder, Employment suffers quite a bit. There’s a pomposity in the music that’s to be admired, but it’s very rarely matched with any musical intelligence or subtlety, and it frequently just ends up sounding obnoxious. It’s even more puzzling that so many of the songs fall so flat when 22 promised so much. Ricky Wilson’s vocals (rarely supported with any harmonies, to their detriment) and the at-times-appalling lyrical content (“Everyday I love you less and less/I can’t believe once you and me did sex”) also grate quite quickly as well. The only album track worth highlighting is probably ‘Caroline, Yes’.
The follow-up, 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob, wasn’t a huge improvement. Sure, it contained the synonymous ‘Ruby’ which still sounds relatively fresh eight years later, but it also spawned the altogether irritating and aptly-named single ‘Everything Is Average Nowadays’. As a package, Yours Truly, Angry Mob is a more of a guitar-orientated affair than Employment and there’s a more generous spread of quality felt across all of the tracks, but it falls into some of the same pitfalls as its predecessor.
The often overly simple music wears patience thin fairly quickly, and for all of the confidence and bravado the band are oozing, the album is missing that killer upbeat track that should be the anchor of any indie album worth its salt. Songs like ‘Thank You Very Much’ and the aforementioned ‘Everything Is Average Nowadays’ are clearly meant to fulfil this role, but there’s a frustrating lack of urgency in both of these songs regardless of their tempo. ‘Learnt My Lesson Well’ is their best effort at up-tempo anthem rock in this outing. Somewhat surprisingly, Yours Truly, Angry Mob comes to life when the bravado is shelved and the band embrace melancholy, ‘I Can Do It Without You’ and the minimalist but endearing ‘Boxing Champ’ being surprise highlights here.
It’s when they began to fade slightly from the public eye, though, where the Kaiser Chiefs started to produce arguably some of their best stuff, beginning with 2008’s Off With Their Heads. What it lacks in successful singles, it makes up for in consistency throughout the album. While the music is still basic at its core, there’s a new-found subtlety in the instrumentation and the songwriting that signals a growing maturity, and the band exhibit their innate confidence with more of a strut and swagger, as opposed to the brash, youthful manner that they had been doing previously. Wilson also sounds far more sure of himself as a vocalist, and this makes everything knit together much more seamlessly. In terms of album highlights, take your pick – ‘Like It Too Much’, ‘Always Happens Like That’ and ‘Tomato In The Rain’ are all worthy contenders, but this writer’s personal pick has to be the album’s only other single ‘Good Days, Bad Days’.
2011’s The Future Is Medieval is a further step forward in their somewhat surprising growth as a band. It finds them more texture savvy, with an increased emphasis on the use of synths, but with a much subtler and more varied approach than that demonstrated on Employment. The album is packed with solid songs, from the poppy, synth saturated ‘Heard It Break’, to the richly dark ‘Out Of Focus’, and the occasionally silly but nevertheless endearing ‘Man On Mars’. It does have a handful of weaker tracks, but there’s nowhere near the level of filler here that was to be found on Employment and Yours Truly, Angry Mob. The use of more widespread vocal harmonies adds another string to their bow, and again Wilson displays a growing comfort in his role. In essence, it feels like Kaiser Chiefs on top of their game.
Which is why 2014’s Education, Education, Education & War feels particularly disappointing. It’s like two steps backwards after a giant leap forward, indicating that their fourth album was more of a fleeting experimentation rather than a genuine long term shift in direction. It’s a bit more stripped back than its direct predecessor and much more guitar driven, and it suffers from a lack of textural depth. However, even some of the more brash songs that are throwbacks to their mainstream heyday, such as ‘The Factory Gates’ and ‘Ruffians On Parade’, while not having that intangible ingredient that makes a mainstream radio hit, show how far they’ve come as a band and how they’ve refined their song writing over the years. ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Meanwhile Up In Heaven’ display a comfort with melancholy that there was absolutely no sign they would achieve at the beginning of their careers.
[ifram[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/MPipMQvKgKk?rel=0"]p>This is usually where I sum up all of the dreadful music I’ve trawled through in the name of research and shit on it from a height in as academic a fashion as I can achieve. However, I find myself having to break from that short-lived tradition this time around. While I’m not going to say I’m beating myself up for ignoring Kaiser Chiefs for years, I have to admit that I dismissed them far too quickly. Rather than sticking to what they knew and mass producing increasingly baffling attempts to recapture the apparent magic of ‘Everyday I Love You Less And Less’, they very noticeably matured as a band, branched out their sound and are all the better for it now. Sure, they’ll never win any literary prizes for their lyrics, and the music is often very straightforward, but what they’ve really refined over the years is their ability to make simplicity work, and they’ve also learnt the vital traits of subtlety and restraint.
We may never see Kaiser Chiefs in a Top 10 singles chart ever again, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t look forward to their future, given their rate of progression to date. If you’re like me and you abandoned them eight years ago – or even if you’ve never given them a chance – you may want to reconsider.