British rockers The Vaccines corrected their course on “Combat Sports,” a knockout return to form and 2018’s best record so far.
It’s a contrast to the band’s third album, 2015’s “English Graffiti,” which began with lofty artistic ambitions. Tired of the proto-punk riffs that defined 2011’s “What Did You Expect From the Vaccines?” and 2012’s “Come of Age,” frontman Justin Young had a chip on his shoulder.
“We felt like we’d been pigeonholed, like we were functioning within these very small parameters. We wanted to prove that we could make a production-heavy record, that we could make pretty songs and songs with these weird sustained chords. But the record lacks focus, and in trying to find ourselves, we kind of lost our way,” says Young, appearing in The City this week.
A few “Graffiti” cuts (“Handsome” and “Radio Bikini”) pack the classic Vaccines wallop, with serpentine interplay between Young’s smoky vocals and guitarist Freddie Cowan’s kinetic chords. But it also sinks into folk navel-gazing that characterized Young’s early solo work as Jay Jay Pistolet.
“I guess we were just trying to figure out what defined us. What do The Vaccines do that nobody else does? And I actually think we shed a lot of that by going looking for it, and this new album is our journey of rediscovery,” says Young.
“Combat” opens with the laconic “Put It On a T-Shirt” with fluffy filigrees of new keyboardist Tim Lanham. Cowan turns loose on the pounding “I Can’t Quit.” The energy never wanes, from the Top 40-cheesy “Take It Easy” and “Your Love Is My Favourite Band” to the garage-scrappy “Nightclub,” “Surfing in the Sky” and “Out On the Street.”
Young and Cowan’s rare intuitive connection, which somehow feels like a conversation, was something they had to remind themselves about during a lengthy post-”Graffiti” stay at a quiet London rehearsal space.
A frustrated Cowan sat his chum down and confessed he had no idea where he was headed, musically. Young says Cowan told him, “We need to make a record that’s good for us, not just good for you. By trying to be universal, you’re completely forgetting all your idiosyncrasies and all your weirdness. So go away and reconnect with the person that first wrote all those songs that we’ve so enjoyed playing together.”
It was what Young needed to hear. He bought himself a Wurlitzer piano and disappeared for six months, penning increasingly inventive tracks, “until I felt like my voice was at the heart of it again,” he says. “We wanted a record that felt focused, but also one that had this primal urgency.”
Young continues, “We had no idea who The Vaccines were or what we did. Then we played a couple of festivals, and I suddenly remembered what it felt like to play our songs, and how electric it could feel when were all playing together naturally. So we didn’t just dip our toes in the water; we dove in head first. I mean, there are 10 guitar solos on the record, while I wasn’t afraid to sing out at all times.”
Young won’t forget the darkness he stumbled through to emerge in the sunny “Combat Sports.” He adds, “I gained three stone because all I was doing was drinking beer and eating cheese snacks, and I didn’t really feel like I had any purpose. Like Austin Powers, I well and truly lost my mojo. But I think the music benefited from me being at such a strange place in my life.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 2
Contact: (415) 255-0333, www.eventbrite,comCombat SportsEnglish GraffitiFreddie CowanJustin YoungPop MusicVaccines