The Vaccines

United Kingdom Indie Pop Rock
United Kingdom

There’s a difference between having fun and being happy, says Justin Young. And in the space between fun and happiness lies the sixth Vaccines album, Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations. It’s a record that drips with fun – 10 songs in just over half an hour, packed with hooks and melodies and pop smarts – but which explores the way real life lets us down, no matter what we tell the world on our Instagram stories.
“It’s about loss,” Young says. “And coming to terms with that loss – not necessarily grieving for it, but trying to get a new understanding of it. I don’t just mean in a romantic sense.”
The album’s title comes from a misremembered lyric in Don McLean’s American Pie (“I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck / With a pink carnation in a pick-up truck”), which sparked a train of thought. “I was living in LA while writing this record, and American Pie is a song about disillusionment with America and the American dream, and his feeling that something had died. I guess I was coming to terms with similar things – my understanding of what the real West Coast of America was, after growing up on a diet of American pop culture. That was all coming to a head as various relationships were ending, and Freddie [Cowan, guitar] was leaving the band. That was the seed of it. It’s about the loss of dreams.”
The tension is evident in the album’s opener, Sometimes, I Swear. Over insistent drums, and euphoric guitars, Young sets out what might be the record’s manifesto: “I’m caught in the good fight / I start to feel small / When the gravity hits me / I’ve got nowhere to fall.” The chorus makes the sense of displacement even plainer: “Sometimes, I swear, it feels like I don’t belong anywhere.”
“Increasingly, I think, we all feel that gap between reality and expectation,” Young says. “I feel lonely, but I also feel like a loner. I feel lonely when I don’t have a relationship, but then I want to distance myself when I do.” That sense of displacement is everywhere: he speaks of playing a triumphant show at the Victorious festival in Portsmouth this past summer, “and then I went back to my childhood bed – which is not something I do very often – and it was a reminder that it was as close to a home as I’ve ever really come.”
These are complicated feelings – ambivalence, doubt, fear, maybe some shame. So why are they wrapped up in pop songs that fizz like a sherbert fountain? “Maybe because the more universal they feel, the less alone I feel. Even now, when I sing ‘All alone, all alone, I am on my own’ in the breakdown of If You Wanna, I well up, and I feel less alone. I grew up on an everchanging, quite eclectic diet of music that made me feel less alone. The songs I connected with were always the ones that made me feel less alone, and made me see the humanity in the people whose pictures were on my wall. So I want people to be able to connect with my songs as easily as possible.”
The first song to be debuted live was Heartbreak Kid – an instant Vaccines classic that barrels along sunnily like a convertible sports car – which the band unveiled at their secret show at London’s Sebright Arms earlier this year. It was written during a burst of creativity – the whole album was written between November 2021 and May 2022. “What happens is, I feel like I need to start writing with The Vaccines in mind. And then we’ll land on a song that feels like the beginning of something. In this case, the song that unlocked the album was the stirring Love To Walk Away. “And we realised, maybe we want to make a rock record.”
That song – and others on the record – was co-written with the album’s producer, Andrew Wells, who was a counterintuitive choice for a rock record, given his history of pop (Ellie Goulding, Adam Lambert, Jason Mraz). What he had, though, was a love of The Vaccines. “He grew up going to see The Vaccines. I went for a beer with him and he explained why he loved us, and what sort of record he wanted to hear. I really liked his vision, and I agreed with what he was saying.” And so Pick Up Full of Pink Carnations was recorded at Wells’ home studio in LA in two bursts in September 2022 and January 2023.
This is the first Vaccines album since the departure of Freddie Cowan – touring member Timothy Lanham has stepped up to full Vaccine status as lead guitarist – and it felt like a fresh start. Cowan was missed on a personal level, but as a father to a young family, he no longer wanted to uproot himself to record or go on long tours. It was an easy decision for both him and the band, and they remain friends. But the group was reinvigorated by change, not least because it was the first time they were self-funding recording, with no major label deal in place. “We’d all put money into making the record, so we all had skin in the game. It was fun – really fun.”
At this point in their career, there’s a pretty clear sense of who The Vaccines are and what they do: this is 60s-inspired classicist guitar pop (remember the “I’m

no Frankie Avalon” reference of Teenage Icon?), filtered through new wave (and it really is new wave, not punk), given a modernist sheen in the production. “I think we’re euphoric and melancholic in equal measure. I think we’re very direct, and I think this record sounds quite classic and simple, but hopefully of its time as well.” (The Spotify playlist he listened to while writing is exactly that stuff – classic and simple.)
A good Vaccines album always sounds like every track should be a single. Every track on Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations sounds like it should be a single (‘That’s just what I’m drawn to. When I was a kid, my favourite songs were always the singles”). Partly that’s a result of how the songs are chosen – there’s not much agonising over the flow and the message. Instead the members vote on their favourites of the songs they have, which tends to lead to a certain directness of both intent and execution. Certainly, that was the case this time round. “One of the things I’m most proud of on this record is that it sounds cohesive. It feels like a vision realised, whereas sometimes in the past I’ve heard something else and thought. ‘I’d love to try something like that,” and ended up getting confused.
One of the most startling things about The Vaccines in 2023 is how young their audience remains. Many guitar bands find their audience ages with them, but The Vaccines’ keeps replenishing. There’s something in that euphoria and melancholy that speaks to younger crowds, and this record’s themes – which you could, if you wished, boil down to FOMO – will resonate strongly. “It really excites me that we have so many young fans.” Young says. “We do get new fans – I honestly look at people, and think, ‘You were four when Wreckin’ Bar came out!’ We’re not just trying to keep the people who were already there, we’re trying to engage new fans. I love reading comments on TikTok: ‘I’d never heard of you till today, but you’re my new favourite band.”
Young’s justifiably proud of Pick-Up Full of Pink Carnations – “every single song on the record was my favourite at some point”. And so he should be. How often do you hear a band truly flower in their sixth record? It’s time to wake up and smell The Vaccines.