By Meg McCarney
The only thing more difficult than being a band during the pandemic must be being a band named after a highly politicized, divisive healing measure. With their fifth LP Back In Love City, however, The Vaccines have finally landed on material that their core supporters and skeptics alike can agree on. It’s ambitious, refreshingly new material from the British five-piece and the most exciting record in their discography to date.
Comprised of frontman Justin Young and bandmates Freddie Cowan, Árni Árnason, Timothy Lanham, and Yoann Intonti, The Vaccines recently reached the decade mark of their career, growing into the accolades that have chased them since their origins. Their debut live show was a who’s-who of modern rock icons, with artists like Marcus Mumford and Alex Kapranos spilling into a tiny pub just to catch a glimpse of the band anticipated to resurrect the tradition of the classic British guitar-rock band.
The performance received instant praise and led to a spot on the famed music show Later... with Jools Holland before the band even produced a debut single. Heralded early on by publications like The Guardian as the continuation of the modern rock canon established by acts like Interpol and The Strokes, The Vaccines have proven, after a ten-year career and the release of their warmest, most provocative album to date, that they’re ready to step out of the shadows of their icons and lead a rock revival.
On Back In Love City, the band has combined the most noteworthy aspects of their past records—the thunderous guitar solos, the heartfelt songwriting and storytelling, the frenetic instrumentation—into a record that cements their signature sound once and for all: an inspired, fresh blend of electrifying strings and thundering percussion backing vulnerable songwriting. On this quasi-concept album, inspired by a house-swap that saw Young living in Los Angeles, the band’s time recording at Sonic Ranch, and myriad fictional and real cities, Back In Love City is an ode to an imaginary, idyllic place where, even as the world collapses into a paranoid race against the clock, love can be tapped into as a source of strength.
Like the city in its title, this record is tender yet soberingly self-aware, realistic but hopeful. The Vaccines soundtrack a hypothetical love revolution, one sparked as a means of counteracting widespread malaise and discontentment. Love City is, in itself, meant to be a place for harmony, an escape route almost too good to be true. Likewise, the band’s fifth album is a place to seek solace, falling under the spell of entrancing riffs, slick reverb, and impassioned vocals while the world outside remains decidedly less than lovely.
The album jolts to a start with buzzing harmonies on title track, “Back In Love City,” packed with enough clever plays on words and postmodern references to set the scene for an album highly critical of, yet simultaneously enchanted with pop culture. Young speaks about exercising demons by taking them to the gym and drinking to drown his sorrows, which somehow always learn to swim through the liquor. His lines are delivered robotically and flippantly, the observations of someone who’s seen everything and is impressed by nothing. Young is as bored as he is skittish, reflecting an impending sense of doom that permeates the album. “Our fate is on the phone,” he offers in one verse, lamenting the hold Internet culture has on the way he’s able to live his life. Less bemoaning the evils of technology, and more sobered by the sense of how integrated into our lives it already is, the jangly, pulsing opener establishes the album’s integral message. Back In Love City exemplifies the tug-of-war between trying to exercise one’s free will while realizing how many of our choices are ultimately made for us by social media algorithms, big corporations, and politicians .
“El Paso,” the halfway point in the album, calls listeners to Love City, with a Technicolor chorus exploding in the question, “Who wants to live like this?” A mellow, nylon guitar ushers listeners into a condemnation of social pleasantries and insufferable trends, making a paradise like Love City seem all the more desirable. Young cites everything from the erasure of real privacy (“You don’t want an alien reading your mail again”), society’s preference for stoicism (“Feelings are gated, but came highly rated”), to heightened fear and anxiety as reasons to pack our bags and head out of town. It’s all very dramatic and convincing; the Sistine ceiling is collapsing, good news is old news, and it’s time to get out while we still can.
While the evils and undeniably cringy aspects of pop culture are given ample space to be dissected on this LP, likewise, so are the romantic notions worth clinging to. “Heart Land,” an airy, twinkling number, serves as the band’s lovelorn ode to a country on the decline. Young recounts a laundry list of things he admires about the United States—Spider-Man, favorite musical artists, burgers and fries, monster trucks—offering his romantic musings up as fuel for his own sense of hope. “I’m not giving up on my love for you,” Young promises, holding onto his memories even as the world burns. The title, of course, hints at the Heartland region of America: nineteen states that are said to encompass the broadest representation of the United States. Within that band, of course, lie dangerously red-leaning states, strict abortion laws, and notoriously poor race relations. It’s fitting that Young chose to focus on this region in particular, offering his admiration as a salve against the country’s most disheartening, concentrated divisiveness. The track has a laid back, surf-rock feel and Young is at his best and brightest as he dreams of his “land of hope and paradise.” Perhaps a testament to the band’s ability to convincingly world-build, this album’s most charming and disarmingly transparent track is also its most heartbreaking.
While Young’s masterful lyricism lends itself easily to difficult, meaningful conversations about the state of the world and its residual mental impact on us, a track like “Jump Off The Top” is electricity personified, loud and abrasive for the sake of making a scene. At first glance, Young’s throaty vocals and the mathy strings accompany what is a pretty light track lyrically. A deeper look reveals that the track picks up where “El Paso” left off, referencing that moment where you genuinely can’t decide what to do to escape a grueling world. The lyrics read as a conversation between Young and another person, questioning why he’s scared of dying. In response to that, of course, he returns to his intention to “jump off the top:” thrill-seeking, however dangerous, to find some sense of stimulation, an ounce of life amidst a desolate landscape.
Beyond expanding the foundation of their concept album, The Vaccines characteristically hone in on what has been a staple of their back catalog—musings on romantic relationships. “Headphones Baby,” a fitting first single from the album, captures the sense of loving so deeply that you want to swim right inside a lover’s bloodstream. Jumpy snares and sparkling production capture the sense of a big-screen, impossible-dream sort of love, as bold and brash as the imagery on this LP. Lines like “I wanna live inside a world wherever you are” are delivered alongside “…can’t pop the question if you’re live on Reddit,” a wink and a nod to return to the real subject at hand in case you’re getting too sentimental. While love runs rampant here, it’s discussed at length merely to exercise Young’s point; there is a persistent need for an escape to a perfect world (or person), wherein everything makes sense and we can point and laugh at the silly place we left behind.
“Wanderlust,” as its name suggests, oozes with longing. Castanets, a raging bassline, and reverb-heavy guitars thrash together to create a hormonal, charging ode to, well, lust. “Open your borders and give me my orders,” Young croons, comparing his lover to a vacation paradise and vanilla gelato. It’s oh-so-decadent and indulgent, as dreamy and saccharine of an escape as Love City itself promises to be. Young himself wears his vulnerability and lovesickness like a badge of honor, proclaiming himself “like burrata and less like Sinatra.”
“Bandit” has a plucky acoustic intro that bursts into lyrics that fittingly waste no time with taking it slow. “Let’s stop seeing other people, want to be your favorite Beatle,” Young bluntly states, kicking off this swaggering ode to a rock star terrified of any display of weakness. His character sways between pursuing love doggedly then backtracking on his feelings, reassuring himself that he’s better off keeping up the pretense of a self-sustaining, image-obsessed rock star; “I don’t care, just watch the hair,” he retorts on one verse. It’s a self-conscious number, with overblown confidence offered to mask Young’s alter ego’s genuine longing for connection. Over the course of a three-minute track, we watch him stumble, self-sabotage, deflect, and resort to asking for sex simply because it seems less intimidating than soul-baring. It’s infuriating, embarrassing, but altogether relatable for a generation that’s grown up with social media idols reinforcing the trendiness of acting perpetually hot and unbothered. A rumination on the difficulty of being honest about our needs with others, Young sidesteps his traditionally sweeping vulnerability to pause and reflect on how hard it is to muster the courage to be that forthright.
“Pink Water Pistols” serves as a touching closer to the LP, a culmination of all of its best attributes. There’s the continuation of the concept album narrative, cultural, tongue-in-cheek references that serve to disrupt the otherwise-perfect moment (“The Tower of London cut off my free WiFi”), Americana, twangy strings, a steady kick-drum beat, and of course, romanticism. Beginning with Young’s imaginary lover being chased by Internet criminals and ending with the pair falling asleep next to each other, breathless and high in Mexico, it’s a track both sympathetic to the pursuit of passion and aware of the dangers that lie in fully throwing caution to the wind.
In this leisurely, four-minute ride through Young’s psyche, his lover is the “bacon secret sauce cheese double-decker” in his fantasy, a warm reminder of the places he loves and still longs to do right by. There’s a mysterious “they,” the sense of someone watching and keeping an eye on the amount of sand left in the hourglass. It’s an admission of personal failure and a paranoid, exhausted surrender to love and its eventual downfall. Backed by minimal instrumentation, Young’s voice has a radiant, glowing quality to it, allowing the album’s final track to shimmer and close out the LP on a bittersweet high note.
Back In Love City is an album desperately in search of the gray area, the sweet spot between the polarity of widespread, social-media driven isolation and the increasingly antiquated concept of romantic sentimentality. By its finish, it finds it-- and it’s beautiful. The Vaccines’ fifth record attacks desolation in the twenty-first century while also taking a moment to pause and admire beauty frivolously. It’s an album as frenzied and melodramatic as the world it’s critical of.
Full of punchy, clever metaphors, The Vaccines display a confidence and a breadth of fresh, energetic takes not found in their past works. Back In Love City cements the English rock outfit as one of the genre’s strongest bands—not merely another guitar band, but one that can balance engaging world-building, slick lyricism, and thrashing instrumentation with ease. Simultaneously a condemnation of and a love letter to culture, Back In Love City is The Vaccines’ most impressive, compelling work yet, proving that their creative potential is at an all-time high.
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