“Let me level this as an indictment: Only a part-time grass but a full-time asshole,” sings Gareth David (a.k.a. Gareth Campesino!) less than two minutes into “Renato Dall’Ara (2008),” the first track on Sick Scenes, the band’s first new album in more than three years. The declamatory zinger is just the first of many indications the group isn’t planning to settle into some comfortable middle ground as it ages. Instead, Sick Scenes sounds even more energized than No Blues, 2013’s assured return to form after the less inspired Hello Sadness. Gareth might poke fun at the group’s hyperactive past, with the rousing “oohs” of the refrain followed by a sarcastic “living off 2008,” but this is a record intent on demonstrating Los Campesinos! is still an artistically vital act. And to a large degree, the band pulls it off.
True, all the hallmarks of years past are here: nerdy football references, sing-along choruses, and instrumentation that can come across as much like a tidal wave of sound as an orchestrated assemblage of ebullient pop. But the album has some of the most somber-sounding compositions of any of the group’s output, as well. “The Fall Of Home” is the centerpiece of this serious-minded element, a plaintive and simple lament for the nature of the small towns so many people leave, only to realize things aren’t necessarily better elsewhere. “A Litany/Heart Swells” is the other standout from the slowed-down offerings, a waltzlike rhythm that slowly transforms into a cathartic chant. These songs don’t necessarily fit smoothly into the album as a whole, but they’re affecting numbers in their own right.
If Sick Scenes doesn’t necessarily cohere as a whole, the individual songs are strong enough that it also doesn’t really matter. From the rollicking charm of “For Whom The Belly Tolls” to the effervescent agitation of frenetic anthems like “I Broke Up In Amarante” and “Sad Suppers,” Los Campesinos! still have energy to burn. If anything, there’s a layer of feverish distraction that can be even more compelling than the “fuck it, let’s go wild” enthusiasm of the early records, albeit tempered by a lyrical maturity that fuses sagacity with the sarcasm and sneers. “This certainly ain’t youth no more,” David sings on album closer “Hung Empty,” and while there’s an undeniable wistfulness to the passing of time, it also allows for the optimism of a wide-open future and the realization that excitement doesn’t always require storming toward a goal at one hundred miles an hour, either musically or mentally. Celebrations run the gamut from parties to wakes, and—to paraphrase David—as long as Los Campesinos! have a megaphone, they’ll provide an excellent soundtrack to both.