The Magic Numbers has walked a fine line since their 2005 debut, producing music whose quality seems in defiance of its chosen genre: everyone-friendly radio-rock that works almost in spite of itself. Whether competing for the Mercury Prize or opening for dreary acts like Snow Patrol or the current incarnation of the Who, they've always seemed one or two steps from tumbling into outright mediocrity. That tumble seems to occur on The Runaway, a lifeless collection of unimaginative tracks that's glued firmly to the middle of the road.
The album, which stretches 12 songs over 55 minutes, feels baggy in both style and execution, with constant genre-hopping paired with an invariable sense of overlong slackness. Even songs that contain kernels of good ideas stretch on to lengths that hamstring any positive effect they might have had. "Throwing My Heart Away," for example, contains a strong hook that it promptly kills, padding it with repeated false crests that run the song into the ground.
The Runaway mostly suffers from an inability to find a consistent tone. The changes in approach that occur from song to song, while at least promising variety, are frustrating because they're all so safe. There's nothing exciting in the formulaic dream-pop of "Restless River" or the cinematic sweep of "Dreams of a Revolution." Their templates are predicable environments, and the band's inhabitation of them sounds as rote as karaoke. There's even a mammoth, roaring closing song ("I'm Sorry," which clocks in at over nine minutes) complete with minutes of dead air and a secret track. It's hard to enjoy this kind of material when it seems busy so dutifully complying with the precepts of what makes a rock band.
The album's failure is largely self-contained, though in some ways the patchiness on display here retroactively qualifies the Magic Numbers's previous work, which showed hints of the unsureness exhibited here. It also bears unmistakable signs of a group settling into autopilot mode, trading on their reputation and an attenuated version of the sound that made them famous. The Runaway may just be a stumble on the band's road to maturity, but it could also signal something more troubling: the beginning of an endless, effortless loop.