Say what you like about The Transfer Market, but they have a schedule and they work to it. Two major releases every year — one in the summer, one at the end of January — puts some of their lazier contemporaries to shame. Radiohead, to pluck a comparison out of the air, only put out one new song every three years. Mahler couldn't even finish his Tenth.
Of course, punctuality is some way down the list of the attributes that make up the traditional rock star, and nobody cares if your record turns up on time if it's also unlistenable. And at first blush, January 2016 — yes, they're sticking to their titling tradition — sounds like a serious misstep. Gone is the bombast of their previous work; gone are the varnished production values. Gone, too, the parping horns and soaring string sections. Practically the only thing that recent fans might recognise here is the colour scheme: everything, from cover to inlay, from the band's ties to the vinyl itself, if you're splashing out, is still yellow.
Jim White's squawking vocals have been toned down too, and a generally muted air pervades the album tracks. Even where the band do cut loose, it's in a strange direction. First single "Duck, Duck, Guus" is enjoyable enough, but is built around a dated, flabby riff that might have sounded brilliant six years ago. Standout track "Imbula! Imbula!" is as unsettling as it is exciting, discordant piano crashed over propulsive drums and a grumbling bass line.
But those moments are rare. Much of the album can be summed up by the final song, "Debuchy's Homecoming," which starts blandly, goes nowhere and then ends abruptly. Listen once, and it's kind of dull. Listen twice, and you start to wonder if there isn't something behind the muttered lyrics and plinky-plonk piano; if this emptiness and thinness isn't the point, somehow. Are The Transfer Market trying to communicate something about their own existence? Are they, perhaps, starting to wrestle with larger questions beyond their usual, hyperactive storytelling? Then you listen a third time and you think: no, I was right the first time. This is just boring.
Still, since we're thinking about the big questions, It's probably worth taking a moment to think about just what The Transfer Market are for. At their best — or at least, at their most essentially themselves — the band deals in excitement and surprise, excess and glamour. The personalities strut, and so do the songs, daring the audience to find them vulgar and embarrassing, then not caring when they do. It's a game, essentially; an exercise in seeing what a band can get away with. When it works, it's fantastic, if fundamentally disposable; you could claim to have never danced to "Mascherano?! Tevez!?" if you liked, but you'd be lying.
But when it doesn't? Then as we discover here, it just sounds a little sad. Still, not to worry: they'll be back in seven months' time or so, and we'll go through this all again. Let's just hope that in the intervening time, they remember how to write a tune.
4 out of 10