Yard Act Are in Pursuit of Happiness with 'Where's My Utopia?'

BY Ian GormelyPublished Feb 28, 2024


Going into their second album, Yard Act were faced with a problem: how do you prove you're a Serious Band without losing your sense of humour? It's a dilemma that's bedeviled everyone from the B-52s and the Presidents of the United States of America to Art Brut and the Darkness, bands that dared to bake fun with a flash of heaviness into their tunes. Some have handled it better than others.

It's a quandary that Yard Act are clearly familiar with — self-aware jam and Where's My Utopia? single "When the Laughter Stops" features fellow Brit Katy J Pearson offering some advice to a fellow traveller: "Don't let no one ever know about the burden that you're smuggling."

The Leeds quartet made hay on debut The Overload through singer James Smith's wry socio-political takes on post-Brexit Britain; story songs about generation gaps, economic disparity and general existential dread, spoke-sung over the throbbing post-punk pulse laid down by bass player Ryan Needham, guitarist Samuel Shipstone and drummer Jay Russell. The record was a surprise hit, climbing all the way up to number 2 on the UK album chart.

The list of accolades and career highlights that followed is long: BBC Sounds of 2022 shortlist, a Mercury Prize nomination, numerous best of the year lists. But perhaps the most telling of the stratosphere they'd entered was the duet they recorded with Elton John.

And yet, to use Smith's words, the overload of discontent persisted. So, for LP two, Smith pointed the finger back at himself and started interrogating his own life: he had success beyond his wildest dreams, a happy family that included his young son — so why wasn't he happy?

It's this question that haunts the record. Adding dashes of mutant disco, r&b, new jack swing and even hip hop to Yard Act's groove palette, Smith cross-examines the minutiae of his life, from the insecurity that drove him to bully a schoolmate to the guilt at his own band's success. "I know the pain never really goes away," he sings on "Down by the Stream," which starts with teenage tomfoolery but ends with a soliloquy about generational abuse. "It just finds new places to hide inside the darkest nooks and crannies of your brain."

At times, Smith skirts the edge of navel gazing and nearly kills the vibe. But he always manages to turn out of the skid and find some larger meaning in his stories, usually learning something about himself through his young son. "I attained perfection with you," he sings on "Blackpool Illumination," adding in a typically self-deprecating manner, "So why the fuck was I still wondering what wankers would think of album two?"

He needn't have worried. Smith is vague about where he lands on his quest for contentment, but Where's My Utopia? manages the old trick of making the personal universal, while hanging on to the righteous fun that drew so many in in the first place.

(Republic Records)

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