On the cover of Sports Team’s new album is a cartoon stick of dynamite, its title the sound that Wile E. Coyote makes just after he’s chased the Road Runner off a cliff edge. The London sextet must be all too aware that for a large number of lightweight indie bands who enjoy a popular debut, by the time of the follow-up the only way is down, and quickly.
The cliché of the difficult second album is real, but Sports Team survived a difficult first, too. They had a reputation as an electrifying live act, and a lovestruck young fanbase who adored the fact that this approachable group would include them in their various escapades. Then you-know-what arrived, and their album Deep Down Happy was released into a gig-less world in June 2020. The silver lining was a number two chart placing and a surprise nomination for that year’s Mercury Prize, where they lost to Michael Kiwanuka – and rightly so – but were thrilled to receive a pat on the head from those who take music extremely seriously.
That doesn’t mean they’ve turned into Radiohead for the next one, however. Gulp! Is full of songs that should get the masses jumping on an autumn tour that includes a trip to the Camden Roundhouse. The opening song, The Game, sums up the feel with a screech of feedback over punky, pacey guitars before Alex Rice repeats: “Oh yeah, that’s the game/Life’s hard but I can’t complain.”
As far as sonic developments go, they now sound a bit like Bryan Ferry on strutting, confident The Drop, and there’s a children’s choir of all things on Dig!, thankfully only briefly. In contrast, lyrically they’re often startlingly dark. On R Entertainment they sing about the confusing rush of infotainment that floods our phones: “A little homicide for our entertainment.” Getting Better is certain that everything is getting worse. “Every foot you place is just another step into your grave, yeah,” croons Rice on a less strong candidate for a crowd singalong.
After a lot of earnest post-punk bands, indie rock has found its sense of fun again, and today Sports Team are less of an outlier than they were on that Mercury shortlist. But Yard Act and Dry Cleaning have sharper lyrics, Wet Leg have the best tunes, and if all else fails we still have access to multiple Kaiser Chiefs albums, so it’s difficult to foresee anything other than relegation for this lot.