The Rifles are back and once again, they are about to surprise you.
Two years and six months ago when their fourth album arrived, the band spoke of how – after the more serene, lush, different sounding ‘Freedom Run’ (2011) – they had “started to miss that original Rifles sound a lot”: hence the inclusion of a clutch of new tunes in what you might term the classic mould. But looking back at that record, even with that mindset, ‘None The Wiser’ was also full of adventure, evident in the likes of ‘You Win Some’ and the closing eight minute epic ‘Under And Over’. Even when they are going back to basics, it seems, The Rifles can’t help but move forward.
And that is very much the spirit in which The Rifles are continuing, and in which their new record is anchored. You only have to glance at the tracklist to notice this. Because in an era in which we are repeatedly told that the album is dying, ‘Big Life’ is a not just an album, but a double album of four sides and eighteen songs. And the reason for this is simple.
“It was just a case of having trouble picking the eleven or twelve songs for the album,“ says lead singer, guitarist, sometimes bassist/pianist and songwriter-in-chief Joel Stoker. “There wasn't really any we wanted to leave off. So we decided to just throw them all on. It’s just a case of giving our fans as much music as possible.”
This is key. There can’t be many other bands in the UK with as fervent a fanbase as The Rifles. They can still play, 12 years after they formed, to thousands of people in plenty of towns all over the country. They’re still not on the radio, they’re still not all over magazines, and yet they continue to be more adored than many other younger bands who are. And it is the trust that their audience has in them which inspires them to do things like ‘Big Life’: an expansive, incredibly varied record - or two records - that is the sound of a band at the absolute peak of their creativity.
“I would say there’s quite a bit of different stuff on this one,” says Joel. “But it wasn't something we ever discussed in that way. We just write, and what comes out comes out. I don't think we ever go too far out there: and always at the core of it there’s a strong melody. And to me that’s the most important thing.”
All of what Joel says above rings absolutely true. There may be moments here that are sonically a long, long way from ‘Local Boy’ and the like, but running through everything on ‘Big Life’ is the strong sense of songcraft that has always been the hallmark of this band.
After two listens, the chiming, up guitars and direct grooves of ‘Groundhog Day’ and ‘Radio Nowhere’ – the two opening songs – will be lodged in your head forever: brief blasts of new wave pop perfection that have an effortlessness which only comes from not overthinking things too much, and getting what’s inside a songwriter’s head out in as pure a form as possible. They are the sound of a band confident in who they are and what they are good at, operating outside the influence or reporting of fleeting trends and fashions.
And though you might at first read one of the lines from the soon-following ‘Numero Uno’ – “I know I’ll never be/On the cover of ‘What’s Hot’ magazine” – as being about a dissatisfaction with the attention (or lack of attention) that The Rifles get from the press, you’d be mistaken.
“That song is actually about my first ever car!” says Joel. “That stuff [not being on the cover of magazines] doesn’t annoy me, nor does it drive me. We’re very lucky to have the support and the fanbase we've got, and I'm very proud of that.”
Similarly, you could be tempted to take a line from ‘Jonny Was A Friend Of Mine’ (“We started up our own little band, and we got signed, and we're still around”) as being a subtle kind of two fingered salute to all the much-more-hyped bands who, in the 12 years since The Rifles formed, turned it in as soon as the music press stopped caring. But no. It’s not. Again, it’s much more simple than that. As well as being about youthful friendships of old, it’s the sound of a man just overjoyed to still be doing what he loves doing for a living. As Joel says: “The songs a true story. We DID start up our own little band, and we ARE still around!”
Amongst the long term fans who have facilitated The Rifles still being around is one very famous one: Mr Paul Weller. His influence on their music has been evident from their very first songs, and he has been an amazing mentor and sometime collaborator, but he has also long helped out the band in more practical ways, with ‘Big Life’ being no exception.
“He very kindly helped us out with studio time with (producer) Charles Rees, at Black Barn studios,” says Joel. “We recorded it all there. It’s hard to put a time frame on it all, as it was a couple of days here and there over quite a long period – probably not that long when you piece it all together. So I have no idea in which order we recorded all the songs in – it seems like ages ago when we started!”
The luxury of this setup, of not being up against a clock on the wall or a deadline, is what has allowed The Rifles to take their time crafting so many songs, and to spend time adding little touches that make them sparkle. Witness the sprinkling of echo-laden piano and the blend of compressed guitar and strings that power ‘Caught In The Summer Rain’; or the twisting strings of the title track (well, actually it’s called ‘Big Big Life’ rather than just ‘Big Life’); or the two very different included versions of ‘Victoria’ (which might just be the most beautiful song The Rifles have yet written). Or, perhaps most extreme of all, ‘Independent’: a song that, with it’s bubbling, almost Depeche Mode synthesisers and big, stadium sized piano chords, first seems as far away from that original Rifles sound as you could imagine, but then by the chorus feels completely natural and inextricably linked to all of their finest stuff. “I don’t want the world to want me/and I don’t want to be another star,” it runs. “The sky at night’s filled up without me.”
“All I ever really want to be,” Joel then sings over and over again in its chorus, “is independent.”
On that score, mission accomplished. It’s hard to think of a band more operating on their own terms, more outside of any sphere of influence, and more still alive than the Rifles do on ‘Big Life’. And that is their own, unique triumph.