Among the ever-perplexing cases of how certain artists have ended up as big as they are, the ballooning success of Catfish And The Bottlemen is likely to always remain a frustratingly unsolved mystery. Even for fans of the band, there has to be some kind of admission that this is really nothing all that new or transformative within modern indie-rock, from the leached-down approximations of Arctic Monkeys songs that is their instrumentation, to the attitude that they have of being genuine rock stars that, in a career of more than a decade, has never yielded even one piece of succinct evidence. And yet, they’ve hit all the right paths and made friends with all the right people to become arena-sellers and global household names, even off the back of all of that nothingness; at least if the Arctic Monkeys comparisons are to continue, it needs to be acknowledged that they had a wryness and a sharpness even on their earlier material that Catfish And The Bottlemen have only proceeded to whittle down into a far less interesting version. And it feels as though that feeling is beginning to catch on, especially when any hype surrounding The Balance has been far more muted than with both The Balcony and The Ride, and makes it feel as though Catfish And The Bottlemen are finally in a position where they need to actually evolve their sound somewhat, lest they risk becoming the also-rans that they really should’ve been for their entire career.
It’s not even like they’re going to unearth some hitherto unseen benefit from sticking so rigidly to this formula either. Right now, indie music is dominated by the tight, colourful pop of acts like The 1975; by comparison, Catfish And The Bottlemen’s turgid lad-rock continues to see them sounding like a pub band who somehow struck gold, yet are still writing songs designed to be heard by no one except a sparse local audience who are even struggling to care. You could say that about any of their albums to a certain extent, but it really begins to sink in how true that assessment is on The Balance, where ideas are sanded down to their most minimal, rote form and left to run on autopilot for the duration. Quite how they’ve managed to get away with this on their third album is a mystery, but for all the confidence and swagger The Balance might carry itself with, dig just a bit deeper and nothing is being held together here at all.
Credit where it’s due, though – that swagger at least gives the impression that Catfish And The Bottlemen themselves believe they’re doing something worthwhile. As played-out as the self-serving rockstar ‘coolness’ feels, there’s definitely attitude there, at least in their own minds. It rarely coalesces into anything more than that though, and that really does paint this album in a startlingly empty light. Stack The Balance up next to other indie-rock in this vein – or, again, Catfish And The Bottlemen’s past material – and nothing changes, with the fuzzed-out guitar solos thrown in to feign some kind of grit amidst production that wouldn’t know what to do with itself if it sounded genuinely DIY, Van McCann’s vocals feeling as middle-of-the-road as humanly possible in their lack of identity or personality, and a run of tracks that generally has few distinguishing features across the board. At the very least, you can say that Longshot has a more enjoyable lope in its hook, and the bigger, meatier riffs in Coincide are about as tailored to festival main stages as it gets, but otherwise, The Balance relies on a general sense of facelessness to slink away without much of a trace. Riffs are bashed out without much variation; the general tempo is pretty mid-paced to remain on safe, stable ground; and thus, the status quo remains indelibly unchanged. Of course, it was never that special to begin with, and to see Catfish And The Bottlemen lazily continue to hammer this square peg into a round hole only emphasises how little they actually have to offer.
Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the writing, possibly the only area that’s even less inspired than the instrumentation. At least if the band wanted to keep this style intact, they could’ve pushed the boat out a bit and tried for something with a bit more bite or depth, rather than beat-hitting indie clichés that never rise beyond what would be expected from C-listers at the very most. Yet again, it’s another crop of uninteresting slogs ranging from relationships undergoing nebulous instances of turbulence on Fluctuate and Encore, generalised notions of togetherness on 2all that indie-rock this basic utterly relies on, and a tribute to McCann’s father on Conversation that could have a degree of poignancy if it bothered to do anything beyond the baseline that this album sets out on every single track. It truly is a lazy effort, but because Catfish And The Bottlemen know that it’ll go down well and ultimately succeed, there’s no point in changing that, right?
Well, to an extent that’s true, but there’s no point in making music if that’s what the general aim boils down to. There’s always been something so disappointingly formulaic about Catfish And The Bottlemen’s approach to their work, but the fact that it’s reached this point of such open, blatant cynicism that doesn’t care about creativity in the slightest shows just how unneeded this band really are nowadays. The Balance will undoubtedly sate fans, but that’s only because it’s the same thing they’ve already been given twice before, and rehashing so unashamedly leaves this as an album that’s just not worth the time to look into. Really, it only highlights the limitations of a band already burdened by a desperate lack of anything tangible, and when they’re flaunted so obviously, it’s hard to even find any appeal among them.
For fans of: Courteeners, Circa Waves, The Hunna
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Balance’ by Catfish And The Bottlemen is out now on Island Records.