After the mixed reception of 2011’s Rant (that difficult fifth acapella album) was perhaps a sign that all was not well within The Futureheads camp, a break quickly turned into a hiatus. Singer Barry Hyde had a fairly well documented mental health battle laid bare in his difficult solo album Malody. Brother Dave had some success with 70s obsessives Hyde & Beast. Guitarist Ross Millard continued the good work of the DIY Lord popping up in Frankie and the Heartstrings as well as short-lived punk rock project Rivals. And bassist Jaff, well, Jaff all but disappeared, immersing himself equally in teaching and cricket by all accounts. But eight years later they announced their return and not just for a pension pot, but new songs and an album too and the first thing you notice about the resulting Powers is that this is no nostalgia trip; this is a full-blown renaissance. Heavier, more mature but unmistakably The Futureheads, and unmistakably great.
Those lucky enough to have caught the band live since their return may be familiar with opener ‘Jekyll’ and its dark League of Gentlemen riff, possibly the heaviest thing the band have ever recorded, with another nod to the singer’s bipolarity in its title. Similarly, lead single ‘Good Night Out’, with its rolling bass and trademark northern accent is reminiscent of The Police but the layers of vocals in the chorus is immediately classic Futureheads for fans of ‘Heartbeat Song’.
In fact, in typically Futureheads fashion I’d been led a merry wynd just to reach the promo material. The band’s PR details on their Facebook page was seemingly a dead end and there was only limited press forthcoming even once the promo link arrived via the band’s manager and making it increasingly difficult as Powers progresses to state with any certainty who is singing which tracks as lead vocals switch back and forth more than ever before. Punkier tracks are interspersed with proggy ascending synths that wouldn’t sound out of place on Stranger Things, vocal progressions and harmonies are ever present but without swamping the tracks so the band’s typical spiky playfulness remains even amongst the more mature content.
What is surprising, or perhaps not, is the brutal honesty of Powers after so long away for the band. ‘Headcase’ (close cousin to ‘Jekyll’ musically and thematically and the final part of a trilogy of tracks about mental health along with ‘Animus’) is a manic third person characterisation of an intervention, while highlight ‘Across The Border’ is a stream of consciousness but socially charged spoken word diatribe about relationships and local mindsets, which is both the most Futureheads sounding thing ever while simultaneously pushing things forward socially and musically. At other times there is a heart rending nostalgia for simpler times, delivered in such a way only to trigger pangs of guilt that being a grown up is so bloody difficult. So, ‘Stranger In A New Town’ is a bit Mick Head (Shack, Pale Fountains) in style with a poppy sixties vibe and a childhood nostalgia for “rolling down Tunstall Hills” while ‘Don’t Look Now’ is a haunting summery love song immediately followed by the equally elegiac ‘7 Hours, 4 Minutes’. As a musical document of the birth of Barry’s daughter Nico, the track again highlights the highs and lows the singer contends with on a daily basis, the descending vocal harmonies creating a paradoxically dark and claustrophobic feel, like starting down a long, dark tunnel not coming out of one. The strategic fade-out at the end only adds to the uncompromising and ongoing struggle within.
If you haven’t already figured it out Powers is an album of very mixed emotions, from four men of a certain age but at very different stages of their lives but all coming to terms with personal, political and relationship woes. The world is a tough place but it is one that is better with The Futureheads in it.
Powers is released on 30th August through Nul Records.