Comeback albums, eh? Tricky blighters. Rarely do you find one which doesn’t send you sneaking back to the original records, reluctantly admitting the old boys have finally lost it. A great relief, then, to report that The Wonder Stuff’s first album in seven years is an unqualified cracker. Up-and-coming bright young things: take careful note. Lost fans from the band’s heyday: you may come back in the room now. Pull up a chair. Have a pint of snakebite.
The Wonder Stuff have had a somewhat disjointed history. In 1991 they were arguably the biggest alternative band in Britain, with all the festival-headlining, arena-filling and Top Of The Pops-cavorting you’d expect, their fervent following held firmly in place by the love-him-or-hate-him presence of Miles Hunt, a front man for whom the expression “main mouthpiece” was possibly invented. But by 1995, such was Britpop’s cultural mass-hypnosis, you’d have been hard-pushed to find someone willing to walk down Camden High Street wearing a Wonder Stuff T-shirt for a tenner. The band drifted in and out of hiatus for the next few years, but Hunt never really went away, sustaining an incessant live schedule and a frantic production rate of his trademark caustic-but-catchy songs. Consequently, this latest effort is about as far from a lazy, late-period dalliance as you can get, instead displaying a bite and vigour enjoyed by few bands well into their third decade. There is urgency in every slashing chord on opener ‘Clear Through The Years’, in each avalanching drum fill on ‘Hard Truths’, and in Erica Nockalls’ swooping violins on just about everything.
The most compelling performances are of course delivered by Hunt himself. “Curse the man that complains about his standing and lies about his age… the usual shit you’ve heard before,” he snarls on ‘Be Thy Name’, as if to prove he’s lost none of his vitriol. But Hunt has never been afraid to turn the question mark around on his own life: “Now I see holes in diaries where the future used to be,” he remarks gloomily in the same song, while ‘Oh No!’ sees him confiding that “I wasn’t meant to be this full of dread”. The ageing process is, appropriately enough, a major theme on the record, examined both depressingly – “All the things you thought would last are disappearing,” he sings on the opening song – and from a more celebratory angle: ‘Steady As You Go’ essentially instructs age-fearers to get over it and start planning their next birthday, with the accompanying sleeve-notes citing Hunt’s own ageing as “one of my greatest achievements”.
Naturally enough for a Wonder Stuff album, there’s a shed-load of straight-up fun to be had. Both the title track and ‘From The Midlands With Love’ have a cheerful moshpit bounce to them, the latter containing a fine tribute to being a Brummie: “I don’t come from the north, I don’t come from the south / Slap bang in the middle’s what I’m talkin’ about”. On ‘Yer Man’s All Right’, over convincing country rock, Hunt light-heartedly lays bare the spiky relationship with one of his exes, then proceeds to holler the title line in ever nuttier tones as the band play on (one can picture studio assistants having to forcibly remove him from the vocal booth, all twitching eyes and deranged chuckles, the Chief Inspector Dreyfus of indie-rock).
It’s a record that gets better as you listen. Not that it grows on you – more that they’ve literally saved the best tracks for the second half of the album: ‘Right Side of The Turf’ is a characteristically spiteful mini-epic with a dynamic shift to teach Mumford and his offspring a thing or two; ‘Hard Truths’ is a jangling indie gem with a chorus The Vaccines would sell their syringes for. By the time ‘Be Thy Name’ kicks in we really could be back at Brixton Academy in 1990, such is the punk ’n’ hoe-down abandon with which it canters along. The set finishes with a pair of songs as strong as anything the band have produced: ‘Arms Wide Open’ is an Eight-Legged-Grooveish slab of power - pop on which the singer basically tells us how we’re all, like, equal and stuff, but with such conviction he may as well be inciting revolution, while ‘Inner Voices’ takes us on a thrilling journey to the land of self-doubt, a place you don’t often picture Miles Hunt spending his holidays, but it brings the record to a fittingly emotional conclusion. After a brisk thirty-eight minutes the whole thing comes clattering to a halt, leaving you wondering: where the hell have The Wonder Stuff been all these years?
During a recent appearance on Steve Lamacq’s Roundtable, Hunt made a heartfelt speech about the perennial undervaluing of the great Edwyn Collins. “I don’t think we treasure British artists enough… Edwyn deserves to be looked upon the way that Americans would look at Lou Reed.” While I’m not suggesting he was making a sly parallel to his own position, such a comparison wouldn’t be completely out of order. As a songwriter who’s been acknowledged as one of the greats by figures as prominent as Paul Weller, Perry Farrell and Mark Ronson, the arrival of a new Wonder Stuff record should really be heralded with something of a fanfare. Maybe that’s a bit too much to expect. But for certain, this is an immensely satisfying album from a band, and a man, we’d all do well to spend a little more time with. The great comeback record has seldom been this impressive.
Oh No It’s… The Wonder Stuff is released on March 25. To purchase the album, click here
Tim Thornton is the author of The Alternative Hero (Vintage). Click here to purchase.