Catfish and the Bottlemen make no bones about their stadium-level ambitions. For years, they claim in interviews, the Welsh four-piece have thought of themselves on the scale of bands like Arctic Monkeys and Oasis, seeking to make music that simultaneously induces dancing and feels, songs that strike at both the heart and the instinct. They began that process with their raw 2014 debut, The Balcony, and that growth continues on The Ride, which sounds like the sonic manifestation of an upgrade in concert billing. The hooks are bigger; the band is tighter; there’s more self-conscious confidence, as if the album were composed on a stage.
In structure and style, Catfish and the Bottlemen haven’t changed much from a formula that worked two years ago. Like The Balcony, The Ride features 11 tracks. On both, the sixth is a slower, acoustic number; the last gallops into the sunset on an emotional wave of instrumental jam. Each album is structured the way you’d build a live set, with peaks and valleys of energy creating a flow that seems responsive to your listening desires, but where this effect feels like a happy accident on The Balcony, it’s very much purposeful on The Ride.
For instance, by the end of “Anything,” a gritty love song with some ear-catching tempo shifts that otherwise sounds too similar to the four songs preceding it, you’re thirsting for a break from the massive choruses, and lo and behold, one is provided with “Glasgow,” the aforementioned slow song and a songwriting highlight of the album. It sounds as though Van McCann and his guitar were recorded on a single mic, which adds to the authenticity of the performance. Forlornness oozes from his voice as he’s “falling in drunk” with whichever woman inspired him.
It would be easy to doubt the sincerity of McCann’s songs, if only because he and his bandmates have been so bald about their desires to be the world’s biggest band. But the ease with which he tells stories and paints pictures with his words puts that concern to rest. Among the most beautiful of these images: a nameless girl falling asleep in his jacket on the way to her sister’s house in “Soundcheck,” a song built for a festival stage but probably inspired by a grimy club.
McCann also has a wonderful tendency to ignore rhyming convention completely, even in the songs’ hooks—”Postpone” sounds like a journal entry set to music—and his vocabulary is more unmistakably British than anyone has displayed since The Kooks’ heyday. Such words as “phone,” used as a verb, and “snog” sneak their way into The Ride, and they add to McCann’s streetwise, endearing fuck-up aesthetic. You want to comfort him when he says “She was in a different league and I was nothing much” on “Heathrow,” and you want to let him know that New York isn’t so scary in “Emily.” At the same time, you probably want him to lay a little off the alcohol; The Ride isn’t quite so obsessed with drunkenness as is The Balcony, but McCann talks about his inebriation on at least four of the tracks, and the whole album feels like a hangover that you cure by continuing to drink.
And yet as much as I want to love The Ride and the mindless bliss of rock and roll Catfish and the Bottlemen produces to liberate young people from emotional hardships, I can’t escape the sense of deliberation that pervades its songs. It’s not that deliberation is a bad thing in music—good songs require oodles of thought—but the best music feels effortless to the listener. This album feels like it’s trying too hard to get me to sing along, to partake in transforming its songs into soccer field-sized anthems. Take the hook in “7,” the album opener; it’s catchy to the point where it feels manufactured. “I don’t think through things, I don’t got time, cos I don’t think things through,” repeated ad nauseum, sounds like a phrase put together for cleverness and because thousands of kids would belt it back toward the stage. And on “Twice,” a conveniently placed slowdown seems about right for the rest of the band to fall back and allow a live crowd to take over singing the chorus.
Catfish and the Bottlemen want to be today’s Oasis, and at points, they sound eerily similar to the Gallagher brothers’ spirit; “Oxygen” in particular reeks of the song “She’s Electric” from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory. And technically, they’ve made strides toward that goal. Johnny Bond’s guitar solos are constructed to bring down the house, and bassist Benji Blakeway and drummer Bob Hall capably flutter through various changes of pace and provide the music a strong backbone. With their support, McCann has nothing to worry about except for utilizing his considerable charisma to get the crowd to sing along. But on The Ride, he and his bandmates might be trying too hard.