IT’S BEEN ten years this week since the release of Employment by British indie rock band Kaiser Chiefs. The first two singles ‘Oh My God’ and the evergreen ‘I Predict a Riot’ both peaked in the UK Top 10 and the album was hotly anticipated by rock fans across the country (or at least at my school). I can’t recall any other debut album being in such demand during my mid-teens
The Kaiser Chiefs seemed to be hitting it big with everybody regardless of their preferred genre. Pop fans enjoyed their catchy hooks, hip-hop fans could get behind their rebellious anarchic spirit, and they came at just the right time for indie rock. Upbeat, raucous indie music found its mainstream heyday of the mid-noughties, with bands like The Killers, Keane and Modest Mouse reaching their zenith in 2004. The way was paved for the Kaiser Chiefs and their debut album Employment.
The album opens with ‘Everyday I Love You Less and Less’, a nutty little song brimming with Kaiserisms such as glee club-like “ha-ha”ing behind an off-kilter lead performance by singer Ricky Wilson. The staccato notes and repetitive melody make an instant earworm; this is “leaping around your bedroom at 2am when you should be doing homework” music to the core. The bridge flows rockets from a synth keyboard melody into a harmonic primal yell to crescendo into the final chorus. The band establishes just how weird they are from the get-go.
The second track is the most enduring song of the band’s career, ‘I Predict a Riot’. As the title suggests, the song is ominous and dark, with quick breathy vocals and discordant harmonies. The unforgettable chorus is simply the title chanted four times, building a sense of adrenaline overwhelming the panic. There’s the occasional cheesy “la-la-la-la-la” and a bit of rhythmic clapping to add to the anthemic nature of the song.
If there’s any smartarse out there who claims to dislike this song, I’d love to see them in a crowd of people in a nightclub pogoing and belting the song out, and see if they can resist its pull. Songs don’t get any more energetic and anarchic than this, but it’s the tight rhythm section and precise vocals which keep it all together into the organised chaos the Kaiser Chiefs are best at.
The third track, ‘Modern Way’ is more sombre and evocative of Depeche Mode or Joy Division. The very 80s bleeps and bloops throughout lighten the mood set by the lyrics about “faking it everyday” and “taking it as we come”. Following up these two socio-political (but not too socio-political) songs is ‘Na Na Na Na Naa’, a catchy and repetitive song about… uh… not being moved by something, and some girl not being the kind of girl that you typically like… it’s vague and silly, but makes for a quirky filler track between two slower, more substantive songs.
My personal favourite track on the album is the ballad ‘You Can Have it All’, which combines ethereal synths with a more subdued (but no less jaunty) vocal performance by Ricky Wilson. He may even be taking some leads from another set of Wilsons: The Beach Boys. The closing round is particularly similar to the classic ‘God Only Knows’, and the story of a couple who seem to fall in and out of love but seem indebted to stay together also rings a bell. I’m not complaining though- if more songs were like ‘God Only Knows’ we’d have a lot less shit to deal with.
The sixth track and first single ‘Oh My God’, while a decent song in its own right, is much of a muchness with ‘Modern Way’ and ‘I Predict a Riot’, but without the former’s elegance, the latter’s energy or the substance of either. Mark Ronson and Lily Allen famously Ronson’d the song (Ronson is a verb, right?) a few years later and I didn’t care for their version either. The song serves as a decent introduction to the band, though why it was chosen as the debut single eludes me, as it’s one of the less remarkable songs on the album.
The latter half of Employment never seemed to make much cultural impact, which is a shame because there are some gems here. ‘Born to be a Dancer’ is a driving power ballad about giving up on your dreams to pursue a relationship with someone who also failed to achieve theirs. It’s a song I’d love to hear covered by somebody with a more pleasant voice than Wilson, because there’s definite potential in it. ‘Saturday Night’ combines elements of the Beastie Boys and the B-52s to create a strange doo-wop/punk crossover. The song has been overshadowed by ‘I Predict a Riot’, but it’s a solid album track.
The two strangest songs on the album are the creepy ‘What Did I Ever Give You?’ and the cooky ‘Time-Honoured Tradition’. The former sounds like a mellower ‘Monster Mash’ than anything, while the latter has vibes of Devo and They Might Be Giants. They’re both difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t heard these songs, but I haven’t listened to either in at least five years and I remembered them word-for-word. They’re a great demonstration of how much fun the Kaiser Chiefs can be on their album tracks, and how downright nerdy their musical influences are. If you haven’t listened to Employment in full, these are the most love-or-hate songs, but personally I love ‘em.
The album ends with two slower songs, ‘Caroline, Yes’ and ‘Team Mate’. ‘Caroline, Yes’ is the most underrated song on the album, with plenty to recommend it for. It uses the widest vocal range for Wilson, prominent guitar craft by Andrew White and some damn smooth backing vocals. The lyrics are told from the viewpoint of the man who didn’t get the girl, directed to the man “who has everything” and won yet again.
In other words, it’s ‘Jolene’ with the genders reversed. It should have been a serious contender as a single. ‘Team Mate’ is a slow and smooth ballad where Wilson suddenly gains the ability to hold a note for longer than a crotchet. The song is unremarkable by most standards but stands out for this group, with an easy listening style you don’t expect to show up on the same album as ‘I Predict a Riot’.
All in all, Employment was a strong debut album from a band who peaked early. The Kaiser Chiefs could have been indie superstars in any era with their unmistakable sound and nerd appeal, but only their most generic songs like ‘Ruby’ had any mainstream play. Employment introduced the Kaiser Chiefs on top form, and there’s nothing on any of their subsequent four albums which varies much from the tracks on their debut. Perhaps their greatest millstone aesthetically is Ricky Wilson’s voice; the guy doesn’t have much range in terms of genre, and however their songs may differ instrumentally he’ll always shift them tonally back to his one mode of “sarcastic working class party boy”.
Revisiting Employment has been a treat for me, as a reminder of what felt like revolutionary music when I was fourteen and didn’t know any better. When Employment came out, I hadn’t yet listened to Devo or They Might Be Giants and didn’t know that this sound had been done before. The Kaiser Chiefs fit neatly in the pantheon of weird geeky bands with occasional mainstream hits, and I imagine that future films set in UK in the mid-noughties will use tracks from this album for their soundtrack the way that every film set in the 60s uses ‘Gimme Shelter’. I’m not sure if youngsters today still think Kaiser Chiefs are cool, now that Ricky is a judge on the fragrantly uncool The Voice, but in my day they were very briefly the most important band in the world.