Is is really that complicated Art Brut? You write a rock song. You write lyrics to go over it. In the lyrics you talk about nostalgia, and growing up, and awkward moments of a relationship – that sort of thing. You do about 10 of these bad boys, take it to a producer who makes it sound really pretty. You call the album It’s A Bit Complicated. You go on tour. You call trucks lorries.
So Art Brut wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with 2005’s Bang Bang Rock and Roll, but the album certainly did well with the critics and was one of my favorite albums of the year. The observational and oftentimes hilarious delivery of Eddie Argos lead to many an inspired moment, including the entirety of two songs, “Formed a Band” and “Good Weekend”. Argos’ style – which entails not singing and not sounding all that musical – stood out cartoonishly from the solid rocking of the instruments, but in a good way. Kind of like a musical Seinfeld, Argos picked out little silly fragments of life, expanded them, and made them feel brand new again.
The sophomore slump is alive and well with It’s A Bit Complicated, but it’s hard to tell by the first track. An instantly catchy, melodic riff gives way to Argos, who’s up to his old tricks, talking about taking clothes off and leaving shoes on. The chorus is another fine Art Brut moment, as he explains: “I know I shouldn’t/ And it’s possible wrong/ To break from your kiss/ To turn up a pop song”. Of course it’s a little portentous when Argos starts to rap in the third verse, but as it turns out, there are bigger issues on this record than Argos rapping. (Although his rapping remains a serious issue.)
The problem with It’s A Bit Complicated is that it’s not rocking enough to be rocking; it’s not weird enough to be weird. Basically, it sounds like the same songwriting session that made up Bang Bang was extended for these last couple years, and while the band maybe jumped a few notches musically, the songwriting feels tired, lacking spontaneity. Argos especially sounds deflated. The wit and sarcasm has faded from his voice: lines like: “She can’t say she loves me/ Even though it’s plain to see/ I’m saying it to her/ So she can say it back to me” look bad on paper…it sounds even worse when spoken aloud, slowly, to a simple chord progression. And even though the song stands out as one of the better tracks on the album, “Post Soothing Out” is nearly destroyed by the undeniable triteness of the chorus lyrics. Yes, we know starting over is hard to do. Can’t you even try to make it interesting at least?
The highlights of the album shift away from Argos to guitarist Ian Catskilkin. While it’s not exactly rocket science, there are melodic guitar hooks a’plenty, and they sound pretty damn good. More than half the songs start with the guitar riff and that’s no accident: you go where the hooks are. A few silly dinosaur-sounding riffs, such as the clunker that starts “St. Pauli” (is it a coincidence that the chorus comes in at a mere 29 seconds?) aren’t enough to sink a solid performance.
When things rock and Argos is up to his game, Art Brut really sounds like a band I could get behind. And this does happen, like on “People in Love”, when – over a Strokesy guitar line – Argos explains in his deadpan way: “People in love/ lie around and get fat/ I didn’t want us/ To end up like that”. And even though the lyrics are kinda silly and it sounds like it was spawned from a Ted Nugent song, “Direct Hit” is utterly likeable and danceable.
Whether it was an intentional move to widen their target demographic or a lack of inspiration, the quirkiness and charm that defined Bang Bang is gone. It’s not that it is a prerequisite of songwriting that you have to say something new and original: in practice, the opposite tends to be true. But like the guy sitting on the bus next to you talking about airline food compared to a comedian telling the same story, everyday events just aren’t that exciting unless you know how to frame them. And with It’s a Bit Complicated, Argos just doesn’t make it worth your while. It would be one thing if you were getting rock songs and nothing more…to get rock songs and less (the singing) is really just a bum deal.