You can really underestimate how successful The Subways have been in their time. A lot of people probably have; it’s not as common knowledge as it could be that they’ve got four UK Top 40 singles under their belts. As in, they’ve scored legitimate hits, and yet their presence has undoubtedly dwindled nowadays. Maybe it’s because, despite their sound, they’re far outside the mainstream rock loop of churning out albums every couple of years to hit some quota of inertia. Their last one came out eight years ago now, and moving to an indie label since basically closes said loop on them altogether.
But that’s not really a bad thing. If there’s one thing that’s entirely in The Subways’ favour, it’s that they’re not interested in feeding the avaricious industry machine, and going at their own pace on their own path is a handy way to show that. You’re not seeing many other frontmen like Billy Lunn, putting music on hold to get an English degree at Cambridge. In any case, Uncertain Joys isn’t the sort of album railroaded by mandates; the exploration of new alt-rock avenues and a heavier emphasis on synth are decisions clearly coming from The Subways alone. Fair play to them for that, but perhaps it doesn’t pan out as smoothly as it could. Underneath the pride of marching to its own drumbeat, Uncertain Joys is unmistakably lopsided, and finds real difficulty in piecing together its new tricks in a satisfying way.
That’s a real downer too, especially when the ethic of The Subways is fundamentally the same. In both social stances and a no-frills approach to making rock music, there’s a respectable, ground-level ethos that keeps them stood firm, even here. It’s the pure love of music itself and what it can achieve that does the most, celebrating what’s come before on Black Wax, while side-eying the clout-chasers and the stereotypical chauvinist frontman on Influencer Killed The Rock Star and Swanky Al respectively. Those social ideas on the latter are developed on this album arguably more than ever before, not only in a more mature perspective that’s explored, but also the new dynamic of The Subways, being a male-fronted band with the remaining members being women, which isn’t seen that often. As such, Lunn does a lot as a more progressive voice here. He addresses being shaped by patriarchal cues growing up that he’s since moved away from on The Devil And Me, and explores his own bisexuality on Incantation; meanwhile, Fight finds his screaming out a call of allyship with marginalised communities in the big, populist way that The Subways have often called their own.
If there’s one thing that Uncertain Joys does consistently right, it’s attempt to really push forward and do something powerful with the format that The Subways have. ‘No-frills’ doesn’t have to be a slight when alt-rock’s mountain-moving potential is brought out, and the band know that. It’s just a shame that Uncertain Joys doesn’t really feel equipped to meet it in the sound, chiefly when the pick-and-choose aspect that The Subways are embracing lets its seams show prominently. That aforementioned lopsidedness really isn’t a minimal component; Uncertain Joys struggles to settle on a singular approach, in any aspect of itself. The synths might be the easiest element to focus on as the big new addition, and while they generally don’t achieve much more than filling out some space and rounding out a few stray edges, to have the title track serve as this big, glittering, compressed behemoth of an indie anthem à la mid-period Wombats highlights how wonky the usage is overall. When it comes straight after Love Waiting On You and how its keys inefficiently wheeze away in the background, the gulf is enormous.
Maybe it’s a case of happening upon an optimum balance that just isn’t there yet, but as The Subways dart across the indie and alt-rock map, it’s hard to parse out exactly what the endpoint is. Among the fairly disparate list is growling riff-rock on Incantation and Swanky Al; glazed-over acoustic jangling on Lavender Amie; an Oasis-ish smoulder for Joli Coeur; it goes on with that being by no means exhaustive. And as with all albums like this, there’ll be instances where the band will hit, alongside the misses that are just as inevitable. It’s a case of down-the-middle rock music not having the sort of fluidity that The Subways clearly want, and trying to crowbar that into the mix leads to album whose peaks and troughs are flagrant and steep. Even down to the production on a song like Fight, there’s not enough there to sustain the ire and heaviness trying to be conveyed. Perhaps that’s a decent microcosm for how Lunn’s more frequent screams or ‘angry voice’ can feel so out of place here, just another block placed on the wobbling Jenga tower of Uncertain Joys that’s keeping itself up erected dear life.
Some might even dispute whether it does stay standing with how disjointed the seven-and-a-half-minute closer Futures is, the culmination of everything this new incarnation of The Subways brings to the table to cap things off in a way that’s suitably hard to love. It’s all the more disappointing when their longevity and affable personality gets them part of the way there. They’re a good band to have stock in and to want to succeed, like they have in the past, but the barriers put up by Uncertain Joys don’t always allow that to pan out. At least it feels more transitional than a big step onto a downward slope; the attempts to recalibrate and find their feet again feel pretty obvious, and that’s something of a consolation anyway. It doesn’t soften the blow of a notably weak album, but if it signposts better stuff to come, here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later.
For fans of: Royal Blood, Kasabian, Maximo Park
‘Uncertain Joys’ by The Subways is released on 13th January on Alcopop! Records.
Words by Luke Nuttall