Emblazoned with the freewheeling spirit of the Beat Generation, 2012 saw The Crookes hone their penchant for tightly constructed, unashamed pop songs with Hold Fast, none more pertinently than on the almost-cinematic, cascading sunset-gorged melancholy of ‘Sal Paradise’, poetically capturing the essence of Jack Kerouac’s diffident, introverted narrator of On The Road the song takes its name from. Indeed, writing songs about solitary people so lucidly, so poignantly and so naturally seems to perhaps stem from being inherently solitary characters themselves: their formation is a much-regurgitated tale of dancing alone in the dark of the Steel City, commercial success has perpetually eluded them, and even founding member and lead guitarist Alex Saunders jettisoned from the band’s vehement #NEWPOP cause (to be replaced by Tom Dakins, recently referred to by lead vocalist George Waite as a ‘blessing in disguise’). But, despite all this, they retain an unwavering propensity for hopeless romanticism that is wholly endearing. Which brings me to Soapbox, the consciously more focused followup recorded in a suitably remote, abandoned church in the northern Italian alps, evoking palpable senses of harmony and isolation that pervade thematically and sonically.
Taking its cue from last year’s meatier, rollicking groove of ‘Bear’s Blood’, opener and lead single ‘Play Dumb’ marks a somewhat bold musical progression, loosening the shackles of the foursome’s jangly mantra with thumping drums and spikily sullen guitars, and continuing their collective ripening into the Angry Young Men they’d always threatened to be since Albert Finney, the face of working-class, youthful disillusionment in ’60s era-Britain by means of his role in Karel Reisz’ superb Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, graced the cover of their debut LP. Directing their frustration at the music industry itself – perennially casting them as outsiders, a role they admirably embrace throughout Soapbox – it’s a rallying cry for their individualistic ethos of making music they want to make, one you could imagine being sermonised on an actual soapbox on the streets of Sheffield, as George Waite howls his defiant refusal to play dumb and “change to get you off”.
The album’s other most potently self-conscious stab at the prominent theme of isolation is centrepiece ‘Outsiders’, marrying Daniel Hopewell’s sincerely optimistic lyrics and Waite’s unusually expressive vocals with glistening melodicism that sees the band revelling in the Kerouacian attitude of “waiting for something to happen” but not knowing exactly what that something is. ‘Howl’ is further exploration of this, as the narrator articulates his affinity for being left alone with his imagination and “watching the world go by” over the docile, brooding melancholy of the guitar melody and domesticated drums, with the title explicitly tipping its hat to another figure of Beat poetry in Allen Ginsberg and his acclaimed poem of the same name. Akin to the use of Sal Paradise on Hold Fast, the allusion adds greater literary depth to the narration of the song, lyrically evoking a similar sense of despair and solitude that Ginsberg communicates in his magnificent opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”.
Embodying the ethereal spaciousness of the abandoned church recorded in, ‘Holy Innocents’ inevitably imbues the album with a religious undercurrent, sacralising an ill-fated love affair through lonesome piano chords and Waite’s cracking, whispered vocals. The fragile ballad is essentially Soapbox’s answer to ‘The I Love You Bridge’ – although falls just short of the profound, raw heartache Waite’s anguished wailing conveyed, as Hopewell masterfully built further on a piece of iconic, tragically romantic piece of Sheffield graffiti (proving “it’s the gesture, don’t you know?”) – demonstrating their talent for quietly affecting, majestically intimate love songs not confounded to jovial, jangly guitar pop. Standout ‘Echolalia’, meanwhile, offers further proof the production is in harmony with the atmospherics of the church: it boasts a sprawling, reverb-laden sound that’s airy and dense at once, with its Orange Juice-ish chiming guitars and post-punk bass divulging into an ’80s aesthetic. Dysfunctional love reappears in ‘When You’re Fragile’, disguised by the infectiously melodic, overtly pop-oriented surface of jangling riffs that apex and soar in the chorus, a staple of their now-signature sound. It’s a song whereby Hopewell interestingly demasculises his male narrator, casting him adrift in the wilderness of sincerity and honesty, leaving him to openly confess of his affection for sharing a bond based on sorrow and pain, arguing that “if it don’t hurt, it ain’t worthwhile.” ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’ is similarly grounded in brutally self-deprecating confessions of self-doubt and vulnerability, employing the positively Shakespearean symbolism of “fading like old light here” that’s reinforced by the dark, nightly bassline.
The supercharged, frenzied jaunts of the ‘Soapbox’ chorus bring the album to a close on an emphatic note, with Waite’s cries of “young love screaming from a soapbox” epitomising the themes of youth and unrequited love that characteristically pervade throughout the entirety of Soapbox. Building on the central dynamics between Hopewell’s heartfelt lyricism and Waite’s evocative voice, the interplay between Dakin and Hopewell’s guitar and Russell Bates’ spaced-out drums, The Crookes find themselves channeling their anti-industry frustration into their tightest collection of material yet: it’s allusively American, but Northern Soul at heart. If Hold Fast was a collection of hymns at the Church of New Pop, Soapbox is the sermons.