Something that literally everyone knows about me is that for about half my life, my favourite band has been The Darkness. I was hooked when I heard their first album Permission to Land almost fifteen years ago, and pleasantly surprised with every subsequent release. Today they came out with their fifth record Pinewood Smile, and I have a whole lot to say about it! Not all of it positive.
On my first full listen, this morning laying down on the couch in my pyjamas, I was not all that sure if this was a record that I really loved. I had been listening to the previously released opening track All The Pretty Girls on and off since it was released a while ago and liked it well enough. It’s catchy, energetic, fun, has an eyeball melting guitar solo, exactly what you want from The Darkness, I can’t find any fault with it and yet it’s not an album opener that knocks me off my feet like Barbarian did on Last Of Our Kind or Black Shuck on their debut album. The lyrics also feel a tad juvenile, mentioning how the women lined up for them when they were “selling out stadiums” which, sorry to say, has not happened in the last decade. The stadiums I mean, the ladies seem to still be up for it. Buccaneers of Hispaniola is a classic rock epic the way Justin Hawkins likes them, theatrical and over the top with a bit of Queen and a bit of Iron Maiden. It can be seen as a follow up to Barbarian, and to Justin’s other band Hot Leg’s Trojan Guitar, and easily as good.
Solid Gold is a sexy glam rock banger, my favourite kind of Darkness song. When this was released as a single a few weeks ago my hopes for the album really went up, as it’s just such an instant classic. It makes me want to punch the air and dance around the room in my underwear. I truly love the band when they’re like this, in your face, pleasantly arrogant and showing their true passion for rock ‘n roll. Of course it’s always tongue in cheek, but it works because it’s also sincere. “We’re immortal, cause the songs will never die” is not a lyric that most bands could pull off without seeming like insufferable pricks, but there you have it. Southern Trains, a protest song against the abysmal railway company operating in the south of England, is a delight. It taps into a kind of punk energy that feels fresh, it is as fast paced as you wish the dreaded trains were, and the guitar solo is among the best they’ve done in the last few years.
It’s with Why Don’t The Beautiful Cry that I start to become a little confused about where the album is going. On the first listen I don’t get it, but after a couple of tries it’s grown on me and I’ve realised it’s just a sort of catchy poppy rock song. And it has to be acknowledged that “We are all but bubble and squeek in the frying pan of life” is a Justin Hawkins classic. Japanese Prisoner of Love I’m not too sure about. It starts promising and certainly wants to be another epic like Buccaneers, but it has a bit of a strange structure with too many breaks and speed changes. Dan Hawkins’ guitar playing is at times incredible, and I can get into the drama of it all. It’s very Queen, and when it settles into a groove it’s great but overall a bit of a confusing situation. Another thing though, what on earth is this song about? Who is the Japanese Prisoner of Love? What the fuck is going on?
Lay Down With Me, Barbara is another strange one. I still don’t like it much after a couple of tries, which I think is mostly because I don’t understand what they’re trying to say or do with it. I think it’s supposed to be a power ballad? I usually love The Darkness’ power ballads when they channel a little Whitesnake, but that vibe feels absent here. It goes further downhill with I Wish I Was In Heaven, I just don’t understand what this song is supposed to do. It’s fairly fast paced but misses the positive energy the album has been riding so far. It hits me that without the guitar solo and the riffs it could almost be a Smiths song, which terrifies me.
Happiness is the song I understand least of all. It has almost a 00s pop punk feel to it, if it wasn’t for the (to be fair pretty amazing) guitar solo it would be a Green Day song, leave out the riffs and it could be One Direction. I feel like I might be missing something, but “Happiness, happiness, it’s the best summer ever” just does not sound like Darkness lyrics to me. What is the idea behind this song! Is it a parody of something? Is it meant to be more or less ironic than I think? I guess “I was in my speedos, you were fully dressed” maybe makes up for the rest of the lyrics, but the track remains a mystery to me.
The record picks up again with Stampede of Love, a duet about overeating between Justin and drummer Rufus Taylor. Rufus low sultry voice pairs well with Justin’s falsetto, the result is a little Fleetwood Mac which is a welcome influence as far as I’m concerned. The song picks up into a high energy bridge, goes back to a slower fade, only to end in some totally mental noise. I love it! What is Justin’s fascination with fat people and excessive eating though? I swear this is at least the third song he’s written that is about this topic. This is the last song of the regular album, but the deluxe edition has no less than four extra tracks. What I will for the life of me not understand is why some of those aren’t on the regular album.
Uniball is catchy and fun, not the most groundbreaking song they’ve ever written but fun, energetic and strange. It seems to be about getting a testicle removed, which seems like as a good a topic as any. Rack of Glam is another one in the category of sexy glam tunes to prance around to, and has a slight blues vibe. I’ve heard this song live several times and the recorded version does not disappoint. One thing I always appreciate about The Darkness is how the extreme weirdness of their lyrics always stops them from being offensively sexist. Who else could write a song about tits and make it this weird? For me this is easily one of the best songs on the album, and why it’s hidden in the bonus tracks I will never understand.
Seagulls (Losing My Virginity) disappoints for a song with such a promising title. It’s another ballad that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, I’m just not sure what it is they’re trying to do with these songs. It’s not like these are treated as throwaway fillers, they seem to be thoughtfully written and produced songs and there’s more than enough material anyway. This is a bonus track for god’s sake! I just don’t get it, is all I can say. Rock in Space on the other hand is, again, easily one of the strongest songs on the album and could have worked as the opener. The Spinal Tap levels rise higher and higher (perhaps all the way to eleven?) on this one, but that’s never something that’s bothered me. I always think The Darkness are at their best when they embrace their clichés and do what they’re best at: play slightly obnoxious bangers with lyrics about extremely weird topics.
Ultimately I think the majority of the songs are very strong, some of them truly amazing, but what I’m missing on Pinewood Smile is coherence. This is in especially stark contrast with their last album Last Of Our Kind, a record that felt like a journey, almost bordering on concept album. The one before that, their comeback album Hot Cakes was a mixed bag with some amazing highlights, some decent tracks and a couple of fillers, and initially I was afraid I’d have to say the same about Pinewood Smile but after having it on repeat for most of the day I feel that it’s better than that. There’s a lot of joy to this album, when I watch them jumping around and dancing to their own music in the video for Solid Gold I know this band still has such a special place in my heart and a handful of mediocre songs on an album with more than enough great ones will never change that.