Everything about The Magic Numbers’ comeback, after a hiatus of three years, has seemed grittier and darker. From the black and white press shots, with the band donning black leather jackets, titled “Are you in or out?”, to the 70s-style rock anthems spiralling throughout their new record, Outsiders, starting from the glam-inflected riff of opener ‘Shotgun Wedding’. Outsiders sees the quartet animated and impassioned with a new lease of life; containing the band’s trademark capability for melody buoyed by a newfound, sinister and gritty personality. “I was always an outsider, we’ve always been an outsider band,” claims frontman Romeo Stodart of the Mercury Prize-nominated group but, back in 2005, with their eponymous debut album, which certainly straddled the poppier side of the indie spectrum, you would have never seen this coming.
This is a departure in sound, for sure, for the band, which sees them swapping the idiosyncratic folk-pop of their previous work for crunching guitar riffs. “I’ve been revisiting lots of early rock’n’roll and blues records, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf,” Stodart explains. “I’ve fallen madly in love with the electric guitar again for sure,” and it’s instantly evident on Outsiders. Second single, ‘Ride Against the Wind’, encapsulates the entire concept of Outsiders into one brilliant piece of storytelling. Detailing the fictitious story of an all-female biker gang who refuse to fall victim to the norms of life, with the crew ultimately deciding to move on to something new by taking to the road, it’s a dynamic piece of storytelling with the Americana narrative perfectly dovetailing with the dark pop on offer.
Nuanced harmony vocals elevate every track on Outsiders, but none more so than on ‘Runaways’, which, with its beautiful interchanging vocals between Stodart and Gannon, is reminiscent of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. Likewise, lead single ‘Sweet Divide’ shows a murkier side to the group, incited by guitar distortion and haunting lead vocals. It recalls everyone from the euphoric riffs of Free to Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, especially with its riff which is inked in darkness. Don’t worry, though, there’s still some beautiful examples of The Magic Numbers’ quirky pop sensibilities. Throughout the record, a curiously old-school synthesiser creates a wistful charisma, while on the soulful ‘Power Lines’, which recalls the Philadelphia soul era of the 70s, there’s a superb trombone solo which provides some gravitas.
From start to finish Outsiders acts as a companion on a journey through the best of Americana. From the Neil Young-by-way-of-Woody Guthrie number ‘Wayward’, exploring the reflectiveness of the acoustic guitar, to the Roy Orbison-like dream-pop of ‘Dreamer’, the record wears its influences on its sleeve but, crucially, with enough of that Magic Numbers pizzaz to keep it original and thrilling. This is The Magic Numbers like you’ve never seen them before: leather-clad, rebellious and armed with riffs aplenty, the quartet are rebels with a cause.
This is some transformation, but it’s breathed life into the band and made them not only relevant again, but grounded with an increasing amount of importance. There was a fork in the road, and The Magic Numbers rode through it like a gang of bikers. The maturity to explore their heroes’ back-catalogues without outright ripping them off, as well as keeping the melodious harmonies of The Magic Numbers, is the most impressive aspect here, for sure. On final song ‘Sing Me a Rebel Song’, Stoldart sings: “You ain’t got that magic anymore.” Nothing could be further from the truth. After 16 years in the business, The Magic Numbers have come of age.