The Stereophonics began their career with 1997’s mesmerising Word Gets Around, an album based on the everyday goings on in the little Welsh village of Cwmaman. Armed only with a fairly standard set up and subjects that ranged from a boy getting hit on the railway tracks to a typical Welsh wedding reception, Kelly Jones and his cohorts created a collection of songs that could only be about their hometown and simultaneously could have been about anywhere else in the world. Although the time and place was unique, the themes of loss, grief and acceptance were universal. To this day it remains one of my favourite albums of all time.
Album after album the scope of the Stereophonics widened and now, fifteen years into their careers they are actually trying to create albums anyone can relate to. And in doing so have cast the net out so wide it becomes stretched, weakened and strained under the weight of its own expectations.
Musically the way Kelly Jones has broadened his horizons to encompass piano, strings, blue grass blues and gospel has added a sense of the epic to his music. It feels far reaching, like its embarking on a expedition and each song is a stop along a route where the destination is second to the journey. He brings out the contrasting styles and instruments like a man showing you the souvenirs he’s collected while travelling to foreign shores. Each change of pace cleanses the pallet and makes your ears interested to hear the next change in direction.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the lyrics. The first track is an illustration of the problems the album will face throughout. The guitar chimes in with a few sublimely judged notes, wonderful in their simplicity; when the chorus kicks in the scale of the track rises from intimate to global. The problem is the lyrics try far too hard to do the same. The unconvincing sentiment of “We share the same sun everyday” feels so obvious it’s hardly worth the mention, never mind dedicating an entire song to it. It’s the kind of faux philosophy that has plagued the band since the album burdened with the equally bland title of “You Gotta Go There To Come Back”.
It wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Jones weren’t so adamant in interviews that he was a storyteller, that the narrative of the songs was his number one priority. His lyrical style seems to veer between derivative American Beat prose and Scientology mumbo jumbo. The former just seems like a man trying his hardest to be a contemporary of Kerouac without realising that trying his hardest is what makes it impossible to achieve. The latter seems disingenuous, like a person who has cottoned on to the most basic and blatant of all universal truths and has declared himself a genius for doing so; now he goes on tour preaching a gospel any one of his audience could have written for themselves.
It doesn’t help that the album is wholly and exclusively made up of American influences, or perhaps more accurately, imitations. I mentioned before that Kelly Jones sounds like a traveller who went off to foreign shores, what I didn’t mention was that all of them sounded like they were located around the Gulf Coast. The complete lack of anything resembling a British characteristic seems like an out and out snub. Done with the dreary whether and a suspicious population of fame hating proles, Kelly Jones has traded it in for the glorious sunshine and the congregation of the cult of celebrity. It’s hard to imagine him performing most of the songs without him donning his trademark aviators.
If it wasn’t for the fact that The Stereophonics built their career on what was a refreshing break from the superficial principles most bands live by this might not have mattered so much. But when you have a reputation of genuine, authentic, down to earth music to live up to, failing to do that feels like a letdown. Doing it in a way that doesn’t even hint at the place you started from feels like a betrayal.