There’s a moment in the first ten seconds of “Put It On A T-Shirt,” the swelling opener to Combat Sports, when even the most casual Vaccines listener will hear something that sounds like home. It might be somewhat unexpected, considering the artistic departure of their last record, and the actual departure of drummer Pete Robinson, a founding member of the band, back in 2016. But that first riff, building underneath Justin Young’s laconic plea to “help me make my mind up, then,” dispels any doubts left swirling around the Vaccines’ fourth album. With the assured flick of a veteran rocker’s wrist, Combat Sports becomes a testament to the art of the return.
Which isn’t to say the album is tinged with some kind of nostalgia, or just showcases the band retreading their greatest hits. Combat Sports is as barbed and furiously paced as their previous releases, but manages to make something new and effortlessly compelling from the bricks of the albums that came before it. What Did You Expect… and Come of Age, for all their youthful recklessness, risked outrunning the band’s raw ability, eschewing album cohesion in favor of pumping out one hot-blooded indie anthem after another. English Graffiti, released in 2015, had the exact opposite problem: the record’s slick, overdrive-pop production came dangerously close to polishing over the band’s messy beating heart, the emotionality that gives the Vaccines their giddily bare-knuckled sound. Combat Sports rises from the flaws in all three of these albums, constructing an emotional arc that sustains its infectious momentum from end to end.
In the same vein as Bloc Party’s sprawling A Weekend In The City and Arctic Monkeys’ gorgeous AM, Combat Sports is a “going out” album, tackling the bravado, insecurity, alienation, and breathless abandon that accompany a night out. “I Can’t Quit,” released as the album’s lead single, acts as a scorching introduction to this world, exuding an unapologetic, hip-swinging confidence that bleeds into the rest of the tracks. The newly five-piece band, filled out by new drummer Yoann Intonti and keyboardist Timothy Lanham, embodies a sound that hearkens back to Golden Age British rock, paired adeptly with the Vaccines’ trademark indie edge. Freddie Cowan’s guitar doles out teeth and tenderness alike on tracks like “Nightclub” and “Maybe (Luck of the Draw),” while Young’s caustic songwriting gives new immediacy to his charming rogue persona–only now, on this album, the listener begins to hear something a little more unsure, something that sounds suspiciously like real heartache.
The Vaccines–and Young’s lyrics, in particular–have always struck a skillful balance between the sardonic and the soft, giving the impression of a young man trying desperately to hide the heart sewn into his sleeve. Awareness of this duality has gifted them with their arguably best songs: the heartbroken “All In White,” the stirring “I Always Knew,” the desperate “Denial.” To its credit, the album embraces this nuance, taking advantage of the band’s newfound sonic assurance to manifest love lost, the kind of loneliness that might drive someone into the night for comfort. Young’s heartfelt Lou Reed impression on “Young American,” the album’s loveliest and most understated track, reveals an intimacy rarely heard on a Vaccines record before, with exquisite results. But nowhere on Combat Sports is this duality more apparent than on “Out On The Street,” a devastating eleventh-hour ode to rescuing a doomed relationship. “I’m an uninspiring ending / But the best you’ve ever known,” Young belts to an old flame, an admission of guilt hand-in-hand with the fear of facing another empty bed. Never before have the Vaccines played with this kind outright tragedy, at least not to this extent. Combat Sports turns into a challenge to even the Vaccines’ most diehard fan, and it’s vastly better for it.
It’s worth mentioning, as well, that a Vaccines album has yet to overstay its welcome. Combat Sports clocks in just under thirty-five minutes, which makes its tightrope-walk between acid and saccharine resonate that much more. There’s a kind of beauty in knowing when to close the door behind you, assured the ringing chord you leave in your wake is better than the silence you came into. Combat Sports sees the Vaccines finally comfortable in the identity they’ve toyed with since 2011, the cheeky romantics slouching towards maturity, and this is the result: the sound of artists at the height of their abilities, carving out a spot for themselves while dancing into another morning.