Filed alongside Keane, Snow Patrol, and Kings of Leon as bald-faced Coldplay knockoffs, South London quartet Athlete once attempted to distinguish themselves with an unrepentant weird streak that found them indulging in electronic flourishes and unconventional song structures. Over the course of three albums, however, Athlete’s sound has pushed ever closer to the midline, ultimately resulting in a lackluster fourth record, Black Swan, that sounds like the work of the purely derivative band they’ve long been accused of being. That even Coldplay tinkered with their risk calculus on their last record, the legitimately good Viva la Vida, only draws Swan‘s limitations into sharper relief.
Dialing the emotion in every last syllable up to 11, frontman Joel Pott sounds terrified that someone might question his sincerity. So with every line of “The Unknown,” “The Getaway,” and “Light the Way,” he rends his very heart from his chest and places it still beating on his sleeve. The histrionics of his performance undermine the fact that Pott has a strong voice, with just enough rasp to give his tenor real character, but it’s all so dramatic that it threatens to veer into camp. Even the dynamic range of the songs—the nearly whispered verses on “Getaway” that swell into a soaring chorus—seem tailor-made to underscore a network TV series montage sequence. Grey’s Anatomy and its ilk will be mining Black Swan for a good couple of seasons.
As with most of those serial dramas, Black Swan adheres to a predictable formula and familiar emotional terrain. Despite a handful of cleverly written cuts (“Superhuman Touch” splits the difference between MGMT’s “Kids” and Keane’s “The Lovers Are Losing”), Athlete doesn’t simply don’t offer much that hasn’t been said better countless times before. On “Black Song Swan,” Pott laments, “My body is weak/But my soul is still strong/I am ready/To rest in your arms,” which is just a turned-corner from Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” while “Don’t Hold Your Breath” breaks into a guitar figure that invites comparisons to Coldplay’s “Yellow.” It’s an expertly crafted pop record, sure, but Black Swan ultimately reduces to its primary points of reference without any broader context or sense of purpose.