All seven of the Kaiser Chiefs’ albums reached the UK top 10 album chart in the weeks following their release, with two of them reaching No. 1. While on paper, their UK album chart history makes them look like a very successful group, their scope and popularity deteriorated over the years, leaving me wondering why they’ve recently slipped under the mainstream’s radar.
After their rise to fame, the band struggled to stay at the top. Their global popularity took a hit after 2008 before what was, in my opinion, some of their best work, including 2014’s Education, Education, Education and War. None of their last four albums touched the U.S. album charts, and their latest two performed badly in Europe as well, despite previous albums being popular around the world. Many of their fans drifted away before their new era of intricate guitar riffs and lyricism. Could it be that their album success of the past hinged only on their famous singles from 2004 and 2007?
There appear to be two factors that likely had the biggest influence on the group’s declining success: the difference in sound between their more popular hits and the remainder of their repertoire, and the change in perception of frontman Ricky Wilson. The combination of these two factors stood in the way of new fans discovering their music.
It’s a shame, because their later work is far richer and more rewarding. I found that some of the group’s more popular, earlier hits missed the mark in comparison to their post-2014 records. ‘Every Day I Love You Less and Less’ (2011), for example, is tedious and repetitive—most of the lyrics are simply the title repeated—and yet the group found success in such early hits. When you contrast this with songs from Education, Education, Education and War, such as ‘The Factory Gates’, a song about how tied we are to the workplace and capitalism, there is a striking difference in tone: “What you make on the factory floor you take straight to the company store”; “all aboard for the labour exchange”; and, “you are contractually tied to death’s door.”
Of course, music is always subjective, but what is difficult to understand is the distancing of so many Kaiser Chiefs fans from their later, much more developed and thought-provoking work. Despite the darker tone, the songs keep their fast-tempo, heavy rock sound, and high energy. It’s difficult to see why the change in tone was so off-putting that record sales dropped so much.
Education, Education, Education and War is one of the two albums to reach the No. 1 position on the UK album charts. It features intense guitar solos, fast-paced, powerful pop tracks, and emotive lyrics. However, it received only mixed and average reviews on Metacritic (with a rating of 59 out of 100), and The Guardian gave it just two out of five stars. Guardian journalist Harriet Gibson described the album as not “sophisticated enough,” despite it delving more deeply into meaningful sociopolitical references than any of the band’s previous work. Even the title itself is a direct reference to an election promise made by Tony Blair in 1997.
The 2014 album, featuring ‘Coming Home,’ ‘My Life,’ and ‘Meanwhile Up In Heaven’ as singles, was heavy with powerful vocals and catchy melodies. The music seemed to flow from the group, each song having its own sound whilst also continuing the message of the previous tracks. The album lyrically focused on how our society punishes us with long working weeks and its judgement, as well as how many of us are left with bleak outlooks on life.
This combination of down-to-earth observations about work culture, harsh comparisons between what we want and what we have, and self-deprecation made the message of this album both relatable and powerful. Accented by the stunningly talented guitar riffs (Andrew White deserves a medal) and infectious melodies, there is not one track on this album that doesn’t deserve to be there. This was also the group’s first album since replacing their drummer—Vijay Mistry joined the Kaiser Chiefs after Nick Hodgson’s departure two years prior. This new influence could have directly influenced the change in style and sound, which leans more into rockier territory.
‘One More Last Song’ is especially notable for its intense guitar solos and incredibly catchy lyrics and melody. The song goes hard and does not disappoint. ‘One More Last Song’ is probably the lightest song on the album, with a jokey approach to the law (“We haven’t broken any laws, well not the bad ones!”), and an emphasis on a passion for music and how we always want just one more song. For a Kaiser Chiefs fan, what’s not to like?
It is not uncommon for an artist’s more famous work to not necessarily be considered their best work, and this seems to have hit the Kaiser Chiefs particularly hard. After failing to ever break out of the shadow of their hit ‘Ruby’ (2007), the group’s popularity stagnated. The first assumption would be that fans found the difference in sound between this hit and the new era of the band jarring and unfavourable.
The main sound of Education, Education, Education and War is different from ‘Ruby’ and ‘I Predict a Riot’ (2004). There is more focus on the meaning behind the songs and more complexities in the instrumentals. These songs are more technically advanced and less fun, in favour of darker messages. Although the broad sound of the songs stays somewhat the same – a loud, insistent call about the world being up in arms – the band’s newer work quantifies this, creating dialogues of a political nature. In ‘Cannons,’ Wilson tells us that it’s “politicians and children first” and we should “look alive, pick a side,” making it very clear that the album is scathing towards politicians and highly sceptical about the political climate.
For those who were still interested in the band from their previous, light, fun, successful singles, this album was unlikely to have hit the spot. But why are the band still under the shadow of those singles? After the successes of ‘I Predict A Riot’, and ‘Ruby,’ many new fans flocked to buy early Kaiser Chief albums. ‘Ruby’ was the group’s first UK No. 1 single, and ‘I Predict a Riot’ reached No. 2 in the UK indie charts. Perhaps, though, fans were disappointed with the sound of the albums as a whole, expecting a record of quick hits and getting deeper, more considered tracks. I came for the energy and stayed for the message.
In the last decade, though, perhaps that message was inadvertently diluted. In 2013, frontman and principal songwriter Ricky Wilson turned to reality TV, accepting a judging position on one of the UK’s biggest talent shows, The Voice. For some this might have signalled that the band’s greatest days were over in the months before Education, Education, Education and War was released.
Wilson admitted part of his motivation in joining The Voice UK judging panel was to attract new fans in the months. It probably did, but older fans may have incorrectly implied the end of the Kaiser Chiefs’ serious musical career. The exit of Hodgson surely did not help this perception.
Wilson did numerous interviews with TV and radio chat shows, including BBC Breakfast, and Absolute Radio. During his interview on BBC Breakfast, the presenters focused on the success of the old singles, which didn’t help them in trying to move into a new phase and gain new fans. However, it does represent where their success came from, and perhaps it’s only natural that some bands leave the popular scene as rapidly as they arrived.
Wilson worked hard to raise his profile, and to give credit where it is due, he has become a household name. But he seemed to leave the band behind. Unfortunately, while his success may have contributed towards album sales, his raised profile did not seem to carry across to his band, and any fans gained seemed to drop off. This left subsequent albums with worse sales than ever.
Perhaps another cause of their relative lack of success is that they are failing to reach the right audience. Those who bought their album simply because of how much they liked one of the band’s popular singles were likely to be disappointed, having expected a record of easy hits. Alongside this, many potential fans who are interested in this deeper and heavier music were likely put off after hearing the pop-style songs the band became known for. This double whammy may have damaged the band’s following, despite their earlier elevation to fame.
So, the real question is: Did their previous successful singles set them up for this failure, or take them to a place where this album was possible to create at all?
Certainly, having two singles as successful as ‘Ruby’ and ‘I Predict a Riot’ should have set the Kaiser Chiefs up for more fame in the future. There is no reason why successful singles would lead to flop albums. This being said, I don’t mean to imply the group are unsuccessful—with Wilson on an award-winning, prime-time TV show and enjoying household name status, the group has certainly done well. Yet some of their best work remains largely undiscovered, and their long-term success never measured up to what they were in the beginning.
I can only conclude that their successful singles were too generic to build a fanbase willing to splash their cash on an untested album. Despite previous albums selling well, the fanbase died down after disliking the band’s change of direction and deviation from those fun-loving, lighthearted singles. For me, Education, Education, Education and War feels like a forgotten treasure. It is an album I always find myself going back to, and I will never fully understand its lack of recognition and general longevity.