Despite flirting with mainstream success with 1996's Expecting to Fly and its flagship single "Slight Return," the Bluetones were left drinking at the bar alone while bands like Oasis strolled to superstardom with a wealth of chart-topping albums and sold-out arena tours. But with the Britpop movement a distant—and, for some, slightly embarrassing—memory, who could have predicted that Mark Morriss and company would soldier on with their infectious guitar-driven pop with their name having fallen so far off the radar? A New Athens, their sixth full-length studio outing, catches the Hounslow quartet in typically good spirit, throwing around beguiling riffs and warm refrains for what it is their most earnest pop record to date.
With their chief songwriter now nearing 40 and having witnessed his onetime peers either fall by the wayside or radically upend their sound, it's no surprise that the Bluetones now pen their tunes without the angst that powered their mid-'90s output. "Firefly" and "Golden Soul" are the album's chirpiest ditties, shaped by gentle acoustic melodies and soft-spoken vocal performances that may have sounded too sugared on the band's previous releases. A New Athens draws on a newfound poise and confidence in their songwriting, content to embrace simple pop structures and unequivocally upbeat melodies. The edgy rock that has saturated the band's back catalogue is implemented more sparingly here, though the title track boasts a stirring refrain that fondly recalls their searing chorus lines of yesteryear. "Half the Size of Nothing" boasts a beefy middle eight in which Adam Devlin gets to flaunt his best riff in years, while "Pranchestonelle" closes the album in a welcome frantic fashion.
The streamlined approached to A New Athens also contributes to its shortcomings though; with repeated listens, the album fails to genuinely engage the listener. Where Return to the Last Chance Saloon stood out for its raucous Mexican flavor, their latest is often bland by comparison and its songs can saunter by, leaving very little impression. Each track is charming enough, but you won't find yourself humming or whistling along to songs like "Culling Song" or "Carry Me Home" with the same enthusiasm as the infectious tunes they were churning out 15 years ago.
Moreover, though it seems Morriss is eager to stray from those terrace anthems, he rarely ventures far from his comfort zone. "The Notes Between the Notes Between the Notes" is an interesting album opener, rather minimalist with its repetitive chanting atop a quirky jumble of electronic noise, but this is the only indication of the Bluetones breaking their verse-chorus-verse template. A New Athens is a pleasant pop record, perhaps too pleasant for its own good at times, and only teases as to the exciting places that this ceaselessly reliable group can go.