The Darkness Rev Up Their Humorous Rock on 'Motorheart'
Published Nov 16, 2021One sometimes gets the sneaking suspicion that North America has largely slept on British arena rockers the Darkness. After being briefly catapulted into the spotlight in 2003 on the strength of singer Justin Hawkins's arresting falsetto in "I Believe in A Thing Called Love," the band struggled to stick the landing with their sophomore album, 2005's undeniably weak One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back.
Hawkins left the group shortly after, briefly formed the band Hot Leg (their one effort, 2009's Red Light Fever, is a wholly decent lost Darkness album in everything but name), and for many, that was the end of it. Since regrouping in 2011, however, the group has released three totally worthwhile efforts (2012's comeback album Hot Cakes is the best of these), and one career masterpiece (2015's outstanding Last of Our Kind). 2021's Motorheart doesn't quite approach this achievement, but it's stronger than their last two efforts by a good margin, full of their usual humour and omnivorous rock acumen.
There really is a lot of silliness this time around. Queen-channeling lead single "Motorheart" is about a Jetsons-esque love robot that gains sentience for instance, while "Welcome Tae Glasgow" is a goofy ode to the Scottish city featuring boisterous barroom accents ("Eastbound" features a rattled-off itinerary of actual bars). Perhaps most bizarre however, is "Jussy's Girl," which finds Hawkins applying the famous Rick Springfield refrain to his own situation for a fairly affecting lament of unrequited love. One's affection for this kind of goofiness may vary (a taste for Monty Python will likely help), but Hawkins's lyrics are never without creativity, and they're often endearingly un-hip and earnest as well, like he's a sort of glam rock Rivers Cuomo, or a more emo David Lee Roth.
The songs themselves are all largely excellent as well, with a particularly stacked second half. The dreamy harp and strings arrangement surging beneath the ringing chords of "Sticky Situations" is evidence that even the most florid and overwrought elements of the power ballads of yore can still sound fresh and authentic when treated with respect (and restraint). It would be remiss not to mention album closer "Speed of Nite Time," a sunglasses-at-night banger that cruises the synthier side of the '80s to an extent the band has never done before. Indeed, they have a real knack for extracting some of the cheesier sonic touchstones from the rock of the '70s and '80s, refashioning them to refract their influences at angles that are new, yet still familiar — and often highly creative. It's the kind of joyful irreverence that sets them apart from the common run of trad-rock bands that venerate instead of celebrate their source material.
Some clichés are easier to rescue than others however, and there are definitely a couple of rock commonplaces on Motorheart that could be retired. For instance, do we really still need to be hearing those drawn-out, one-note finales where a band starts slow and then gets really fast, ending in frenzied noise? Recording beat-perfect versions of what should arguably be a spontaneous performative impulse seems like the kind of dusty, display-case energy the Darkness usually avoids so expertly. With the wheat comes the chaff perhaps, and if these superfluous histrionics are the necessary price of the whole, then it's easily paid — and at a tight nine tracks, any fat that needs trimming from Motorheart is easily digested. This one runs smooth. (Cooking Vinyl)