Their ability to write an uplifting, life-affirming tune should not be undermined.
Mischa Pearlman 2010
Much maligned by critics and connoisseurs alike, Athlete have always been subject to a certain degree of snobbery when it comes to their music. Since the start of their career in 1999, despite a Mercury Music Prize nomination and an Ivor Novello Award in 2006 – or perhaps because of these things – the Deptford quartet have struggled to turn their commercial success into critical acclaim. Instead, after the release of first album, Vehicles & Animals, they found themselves lumped in with the numerous purveyors of British mediocrity – Turin Brakes, Starsailor, Keane et al – and have struggled to break free ever since.
It’s easy to see how that happened. The catchy, hook-filled You’ve Got the Style aside, the three other songs from that first album included on this retrospective – El Salvador, Beautiful and Westside – do little more than confirm Athlete’s place amongst the slurry of dreary indie-pop that the UK seems so fond of producing. These songs are not awful, but do sit quite happily alongside those other bland, middle-of-the-road bands.
Yet, when the band released second album, Tourist, there was a slight shift. They embraced their mainstream, commercially viable status and used it to somehow craft an album that, actually, was a remarkable improvement on their debut. Wires and Tourist, for example, are both fragile lullabies that glow with a previously unheard soulful tenderness. The anthemic torch-bearing of Half Light and Twenty Four Hours might have been aimed for the top of the charts (where this album debuted on its week of release), but there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s done, as it is here, with passion and a sense of integrity.
From their next two albums, the shimmering, spectral, almost Radiohead-esqe lament of The Outsiders stands out on this collection, while Black Swan Song’s gently-plodding balladry is genuinely affecting. On the flipside, though, the disco bounce of Superhuman Touch and the Nintendo musicality of new song Back Track fall flat.
Still, this compilation is evidence that Athlete probably deserve more credit than they often get, that their repertoire is more than just a few diamonds in the rough. They’re certainly not a groundbreaking band, but, as even the second disc of B sides and odds’n’sods demonstrates, their ability to write an uplifting, life-affirming tune is a skill that should not be undermined or overlooked.
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