There's something admirable about Stereophonics' embrace of both working-class values and their blue-collar fans. In that respect, the band has become the U.K.'s Bon Jovi; their fanbase may be older now, but that dug-in loyalty will remain as long as the band keeps crafting the same Labour Party rock. Those fans, however, may be sorely disappointed with Graffiti on the Train, the band's first album in four years, as the songs wobble back and forth between maudlin acoustic confessionals ("Graffiti on the Train," "Take Me") and standard-issue lad rockers ("Catacomb," "In a Moment") caked in production mud.
That latter impulse to dirty up their sound indicates the kind of mid-career crisis that informs the whole album. Whether or not the band believes they've lost the ability or desire to connect with and chronicle the lives of "common people," they spend a lot of energy trying to reclaim that reputation. When it isn't coating the songs in unnecessary grime, the production has the stripped-down, "we really mean it, man" grit that's become synonymous with musicians trying to get back to "real," that mythical passion and uncorrupted sincerity that supposedly existed before the fame.
And that's the problem. Graffiti on the Train isn't about the music; it's about trying to reclaim an image that's naturally resistant to artifice. You can make plaintive, soul-bearing music that sounds like it was recorded in a decaying, windswept church tower, but that strategy only works if the songs are successful. The slow numbers that comprise the majority of the album don't sound melancholy and world-weary; they're sleepy, as if someone roused the band out of bed and immediately thrust them in front of microphones. Frontman Kelly Jones has always been a limited vocalist, but in the past he's managed to turn those vocal frailties into something evocatively humanizing, but those same limitations become more obvious when he doesn't sound fully engaged. Over the course of Graffiti on the Train, his vocals go from mumbly, po-faced whinging to a passable Rod Stewart impersonation to Rod Stewart singing karaoke after taking a fistful of Ambien.
The whole album seems content to be half-awake, so much so that even the comparably adventurous tracks sound like they can't be bothered to get off the couch. "Take Me" provides four minutes of meandering space-rock that serves only to confirm that, yes, Stereophonics have heard "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." Moreover, they're confident that a soporific pantomime of that classic-rock staple is just what the world needs right now.
"Take Me" is a microcosm of the larger problems that hang over Graffiti on the Train. It isn't an earnest attempt to try something new; it's an earnest attempt to try to appear to try something new, while expending as little energy as possible. If shared apathy is the band's new method of reestablishing a connection with their audience, it could prove to be the most smashingly successful, terrible idea in music since Lou Reed and Metallica thought it would be awesome to record an album together.