It seemed prudent to dip back into the last couple of Two Door Cinema Club records before delving into the new one. They’re unquestionably one of Britain’s biggest guitar bands, having been poised to headline Latitude Festival back in 2013 before ill health intervened (more on that later) and selling out two nights at Alexandra Palace next February in double-quick time, despite a lengthy period on the sidelines. There must, I reasoned, have been something about their 2010 debut, Tourist History, that I’d forgotten about, some obvious catalyst for their propulsion to festival main stage ubiquity and platinum sales figures.
There isn’t one, really. There’s chirpy guitars, and there’s passable pop melodies. Practically everything feels interchangeable. The interesting ideas didn’t really begin to spring up until Beacon arrived a couple of years later - a little bit disco here, a little bit dance-pop there - but by that point you already suspect that their fanbase, cultivated primarily through the omnipresence of the likes of ‘I Can Talk’ and ‘What You Know’ as advertising jingles (more on that later, too) had already decided what they wanted from this band and it wasn’t depth, just a clutch of guitar lines you could boorishly sing along to.
In the four years that have passed since Beacon, the game for bands at Two Door’s level has changed, for better and for worse. At one extreme end of the spectrum, we’ve seen the nightmarish rise of Bastille, who are to radio-friendly indie pop what Donald Trump is to the Republican Party - the hideous end product of all their worst indulgences, all the Live Lounges and the acoustic YouTube covers, back home to roost at last in the most garish fashion imaginable. We’ve also seen the absolute antithesis of that in the shape of The 1975; brilliantly ambitious, apparently fearless and, commercially speaking, absolutely massive - they’ve had two number one albums since Beacon was released, the second hitting the summit on both sides of the Atlantic.
All of which is to say that positioning yourself in the centre ground might not be enough to achieve continued prominence in the present climate. To Two Door’s credit, the trio have prefaced this third LP, Gameshow, with a backstory that bears all the hallmarks of the classic comeback. The booking of that aborted Latitude appearance was the straw that broke the camel’s back after far too much touring, with frontman Alex Trimble struggling with booze and depression and ending up back home in Ireland to recuperate for an extended period. That at least six months passed during that time in which he had no contact whatsoever with bandmates Kevin Baird and Sam Halliday suggests that the break was taken in acrimonious circumstances. There is plenty to suggest that the build-up to Gameshow was sufficiently turbulent to perhaps expect a darker, edgier Two Door this time out.
In actuality, that could not be further from the case. At no point does this album sound fraught with tension or awash with turmoil and, if you hadn’t ready any of the press that the band have done around its release, you’d never know they’d been to the brink and back. They themselves seem to think they didn’t take enough risks on Beacon but if they were treading water then, they’re slowly floating backwards on Gameshow, the current generated by their tentative stabs at eighties funk rock gently nudging back at them. The thing is, when they go after that particular palette with real conviction, it comes off for them; the shackles finally come off of Trimble’s usually waifish vocals on the stomper of a title track, and when they shoot unashamedly for disco territory on closer ‘Je Viens De La’, it’s genuinely irresistible.
The rest of the album is never as inspired though and, accordingly, feels like a trudge. Matters can’t have been helped by the retention from the Beacon sessions of Jacknife Lee behind the production desk, a man who’s name is a byword for big-budget, low-ambition mediocrity, as recent credits on records by Jake Bugg, Kodaline and Twin Atlantic readily attest. He has a habit of homogenising proceedings and that’s precisely what Two Door didn’t need here - if there was nuance, it’s lost under a blanket, high-fidelity approach to the album’s synth sounds that end up polished enough to see your face in. Stylistically, the likes of hackneyed electro-ballad ‘Invincible’ and the glam swagger of ‘Fever’ are a fair way apart, but the unimaginative instrumental approach sees track after track just sort of meld into one long procession of vanilla.
Probably the other major issue is that, outwith the noted exceptions, Trimble falls back on the philosophy he carried through both Tourist History and Beacon - that his vocals should never, properly, be the focal point. That means they remain unremarkable, often more so than ever before this time around because his consistently high register, in keeping with the record’s dance-pop posturing, make the lyrics less distinguishable than usual. That might be no bad thing, however, if they involve the same sort of gob-smacking hypocrisy as lead single ‘Are We Ready? (Wreck)’, a track decrying consumerism and complete with a video mocking television advertising. Given that Two Door’s songs have been featured on so many ads that you wouldn’t be at all surprised if they turned out to be on first-name terms with Charles Saatchi, that is quite the brass neck they’ve got on them - especially when the broader message was qualified by Halliday in a recent NME interview as also addressing 'how people are addicted to social media and living on their phones.' Profound.
Trimble had the look of a clean-cut young man in the early days of the band and in their most recent press photography, he’s all long hair and leather jackets - the compulsory rock star uniform for somebody who’s enjoyed - and endured - all the trappings of that lifestyle since Two Door took off. Ultimately, though, that’s superficial, and so is the perceived left turn that the band have made on Gameshow. Once you get past the falsetto and the all-encompassing synths, this is the same band, with the same failings, that have pitched their tent in exactly the same spot as last time around - smack bang in the middle of the road.
4Joe Goggins's Score