It's a rare thing for a band to nail its sound right out of the gate.
Two Door Cinema Club rose to prominence in the middle of the British indie-band zenith, coming up alongside the cheeky groove of Franz Ferdinand and the post-punk moodiness of Arctic Monkeys. But the Northern Irish trio swerved from the cynicism that often reared its head in the music of their contemporaries when they distinguished themselves on their 2010 debut, Tourist History, with earnest lyrics that beautifully grounded their buoyant danceability.
Their signature sound, guided by the prolific producer Jackknife Lee, was a welcome split from the slew of self-serious indie acts that cropped up at the time. But then two years later on Beacon, their sophomore album felt suspiciously like Tourist History 2, with the same kind of charming verve in their rock and the same cotton-candy songwriting that melted in your mouth. The problem was that Beacon offered no clear sense of progression or departure from its predecessor and featured no obvious hits like "What You Know" or "Undercover Martyn." In 2016, Gameshow added synths and a newly-pronounced lyrical bitterness, but it still worked with essentially the same formula of light, undistracting verses, and a tightly-coiled indie groove. The band had found their sound fresh out of the gate, but they couldn't seem to get out of their own way or find some deeper layer of meaning in their schtick. They proved that finding your niche is both a blessing and a curse: The incentive to try something new gets pushed back when what you've been doing has worked in the past.
Two Door Cinema Club's newest release, False Alarm, wrestles with this conundrum openly. It's a remarkably warm-sounding album about discontent and the fantasy of a better life rolled into the unease of growing older. To their credit, Two Door Cinema Club takes on these bracingly meta-themes with characteristic aplomb. "Once," the album's dreamy opener, sounds closer to Gossamer-era Passion Pit than Tourist History: "It's just your luck / The strangers living out your dream," vocalist Alex Trimble sings on a track that sounds like a rainy day. That's not to imply False Alarm is intended to be a slowdown: The next couple tracks, "Talk" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed," pick up the pace with '80s-inflected disco-rock, fleshed out by lyrics detailing a narrator's foolhardy quest for ephemeral happiness.
There's real variation with sound and pacing within the album. "Think" shows up with the most surprising and fun sound on the album: a slow-burning funk with a jawing guitar and just-right-distorted vocals. The band's lyrics are polished to match the thematic focus, circling the drain of alienation and want with a new deftness. "So Many People" is especially fascinating in this way: "If I don't feel any younger / Show me to the door / I've been so many people / Still, I am one, the one you've never met." It's an unexpectedly tired sentiment, one that rings with a brief tragedy. But this new experimentation, for all its reach, can come off a bit too concerted, more of a collection of sonic curiosities than evidence of the band challenging themselves. You get the feeling the songs are serving roles: "Think" is the slinky funk song; "Nice To See You" is the track for the irresistible old flame; "So Many People" is the coy self-affirmation anthem; and "Dirty Air" is the apocalyptic dance bar thrasher. A fan might enjoy the changes in tone and velocity, but a cynic might just see Two Door Cinema Club as putting on masks, shaking things up by simply pretending to be a band that does something else.
Enjoying False Alarm is complicated by the frustration of hearing something different, but not the right kind of different. Take "Break," for example, by far the most frustrating song on the album, but not for its quality or its halfhearted experimentation—because its simply too damn short. Surrounded by an invitingly calm chamber-pop sound, Trimble wonders aloud if he's beyond saving: "If I could break down the wall / I could see myself as someone I didn't know / I could shape rock and roll / But all I get is a louder echo." False Alarm gets just that close to questioning its own purpose, but the song barely breaks two minutes. The flash of introspection ends up being just that—a flash. Why was this song, of all the songs on the album, downgraded to a barebones interlude? How would False Alarm have been different if something like "Break" had been given more space to breathe?
The wheels fly off the album from here, sliding from the boilerplate rocker "Dirty Air" to the incomprehensible Talking Heads impression "Satellite," before landing in the arms of "Already Gone," the album closer. Mercifully, "Already Gone" is dreamy in the same way "Once" is, assured in its methodical sweetness. It's a nice formal bookend for False Alarm, but remembering the muddle between both ends lessens any lasting effect the album might have had. Two Door Cinema Club can still manage dependably catchy fun, but False Alarm doesn't feel as though it's only meant to be fun, or dissatisfied, or contemplative. It's a juggling act, a mess that distracts from its best parts.
Again, it's a rare thing for a band to nail its sound right out of the gate, but still, it's frustrating to hear that band dig itself into that sound with each successive record. Two Door Cinema Club tries to make a statement with their newest record, with the cautious maturity of their lyrics and a few sonic risks. But throughout False Alarm's forty-minute runtime, you might get the impression of a sheepish dance party, populated exclusively by people wondering if they're getting too old for this sort of thing.