“Oh, you’ve been waiting for a while” is the very first thing you hear when you press play on Sports Team’s debut album, 'Deep Down Happy'. They’re not wrong. It’s an explosive entrance to what is perhaps the most anticipated album this year in indie circles.
The band’s rise to underground royalty has been frankly stratospheric – perhaps because they spend most of their time taking the piss out of both themselves and the industry, no-one noticed how massive they had become. Indeed, that self-awareness runs through Sports Team like lettering through Blackpool rock; the band will happily ridicule both themselves and their subject matter at any opportunity. Maybe it’s this that has given rise to their success – at a time when every band acts as self-appointed voices of a generation, the truly radical thing is to not take yourself too seriously.
So, to the music. For the most part, Deep Down Happy sounds exactly how you would expect a Sports Team album to sound. Post-Pavement guitars, frontman Alex Rice’s distorted yelping, lyrics littered with references to English suburbia. So far, so Sports Team. But the interesting thing for me has always been how they take in their stride creative decisions that would be Kryptonite to any other band. They met at Cambridge University, and they delight in middle class staples: cricket, Aldershot and Wetherspoons all make appearances here. Indeed, the emotional conclusion to the album centres around moving to London and getting a job. Never has the mundane been so essential – no-one has interrogated the English psyche quite like this since Jarvis Cocker.
However, there are a few left turns over these 12 tracks. The most immediately obvious one is that Rob Knaggs (usually rhythm guitar) fronts three tracks here, notably album opener Lander and an incendiary verse in Here’s The Thing. It’s a tactical move, putting anyone even mildly acquainted with the band on the back foot from the word go. But it also allows the band to explore slightly more sincere material than possible with Alex Rice - their court jester of a frontman - in a dichotomy reminiscent of the Gallagher brothers. Another notable move is that we’ve heard eight of these songs before in some form, and this might easily be seen as some kind of cop-out. However, it actually lends the album the feeling of a retrospective: I’ve not known another band with a career so perfectly formed as Sports Team. Up until now, they’ve barely put a foot wrong and so this almost feels like a look back, with tracks from every stage of their journey.
Nostalgia aside, fans need not worry that the band have lost any of their firepower. They rose to early acclaim on the back of huge singles Camel Crew and Kutcher, both of which are present and correct in the tracklist. Interestingly, the band have opted to re-record Camel Crew, which is always a risky move. It feels like they just about pull it off (for instance, it’s now possible to actually make out what Rice is saying), but the mix does feel slightly flat and airless compared to the original. Nevertheless, both tracks explode into joyous, cathartic explosions. For Camel Crew, it’s the declaration of “call the number, make a change”, whereas Kutcher is saved from novelty single territory by its second half, adding genuine emotional clout to the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. It’s also nice to see the band venture away from their oh-so-nineties sound in places. The fact that they’ve barely altered their sonic palette since their first EP makes any slight experimentation feel ground-breaking; Feels Like Fun and Stations Of The Cross are both stand-outs in this regard.
So, did they pull it off? Have Sports Team justified their own hype? I think so. With albums like this, where the buzz around the record is as loud as the tracks themselves, it’s often difficult to separate the music from the narrative. But Sports Team have pushed enough boundaries, been just caustic enough in places, and at the end of the day have enough bangers to satisfy anyone. There are tracks here for both the dedicated fan (of which Sports Team have more than most – I needn’t even mention the Sports Team Community and the casual listener. There’s experimentation here and there, although perhaps less than I would have liked, and a few mid-album cuts are less memorable than others, but at the end of the day I’m not sure it even matters. Sports Team are a band so in control of their own narrative that they can quite happily own up to moving their album forward a week so as not to clash with Bob Dylan. They were always going to pull it off, even if it is by the skin of their teeth.