For almost 1,500 years, Europeans used the supposedly mythical black swan as a metaphor for something which could not exist. Imagine their surprise, then, when a late 17th Century explorer spotted one, paddling down a river in Australia.
"Millions of people had looked at the world in a certain way for so long," says Athlete frontman Joel Pott "But it only took one sighting to blow it all apart."
That, in a nutshell, is the Black Swan Theory, from which Athlete's majestic fourth album takes its title.
"We read an article about Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book The Black Swan," explains Joel. "He was saying that our lives are made up of a handful of significant shocks, good or bad. That's exactly how our journey has been over the last six years. We've had lots of unexpected highs and lows, as a band and as people." It's those experiences which power Black Swan. Well, those and some of the best tunes the band have ever written.
Since bouncing to prominence seven years ago with the spirited, electro-tinged, indie-pop of their Mercury-nominated debut, Vehicles And Animals, Athlete have established themselves among the UK's finest songsmiths. The south east Londoners have sold more than a million copies of their three hit albums (the other two being 2005's Tourist and 2007's Beyond The Neighbourhood); packed out venues across the world; picked up an Ivor Novello award; and topped both the UK's album and airplay charts.
"We've definitely experienced the joys of life," says Joel, "whether it's all those things Athlete have achieved, or the birth of our kids. But, like anyone, we've had really difficult times too."
In the last few years, the band have lost close relatives, seen friends' marriages fall apart and suffered miscarriages. "The week [Athlete's 2005 hit single] `Wires' came out, myself and Joel both found out our partners had miscarried on the same day," remembers keyboard player Tim Wanstall. "That was definitely a black swan event for us. Until something like that happens, you don't really realise how fragile life is. And it definitely influences the way you look at the world afterwards."
Black Swan, then, is a musical summary of everything Athlete have been through; the good, the bad and the ugly. But although its songs burn with literate emotion, this certainly isn't a downbeat record. In fact, the album begins with the hurtling FM rush of glorious first track, `Superhuman Touch', which catapults the album into life with the opening line, "I'm on fire and nothing's gonna hold me back".
The defiance of that lyric is particularly apt, given that Athlete made Black Swan as an unsigned band. They parted company with Parlophone at the beginning of 2008, after the takeover of EMI saw budgets frozen and most of the team Athlete had worked with for three albums made redundant.
The band then set off to work on their new material with esteemed American producer Tom Rothrock (Foo Fighters, Elliot Smith, Elbow, Beck), who'd been convinced to come along for the ride, label or no label, after falling in love with some acoustic demos. The mixing had to be done `virtually', online. Tom in Hollywood and the band in Deptford!
"It was great having Tom around," says Joel. "We knocked heads with him quite a lot, but I think all the best records are made when there's a little bit of stress around. We learnt an awful lot from him and he sharpened us in so many ways. Plus, the fact that one of the biggest producers in the world gave several months of his life to work with us after hearing a couple of demos was a real confidence booster."
Together they made Black Swan, an album which positively glows with snagging melodies, rich musicality and the band's heartfelt tales of their own black swan events. After kicking off with `Superhuman Touch' and `The Getaway', we reach another sure-fire future single, `Black Swan Song', a powerful, moving song about the death of Joel's grandfather. "I've never experienced death like that," says Joel. "He'd lived a long, amazing life and he was really triumphant and positive about it."
That song gives way to the defiant `Don't Hold Your Breath', written after Joel's wife was admitted to hospital with a possible miscarriage while he was in Florida on tour (happily, she was OK, and Esmae was born in November 2008). After that, the sighing `Love Come Rescue' deals softly with guilt and letdowns; the loved-up `Light The Way' sees Joel thinking back to the early days with his now wife; and `The Unknown' is the band's musical pep talk to themselves, written when they were running out of cash to pay the bills.
The album then reaches its climax with `The Awkward Goodbye', an intensely personal tale of love slipping away; the snappy `Magical Mistakes', a giddy gush of proud, parental love; and `Rubik's Cube' which, according to Joel, "Sums everything up. It's about puzzling through life, working it out as you go along and having to deal with its uncertainties. That's the magic of life, really."
Together, they make for the strongest collection of songs Athlete have recorded. That much was underlined by the fact that, once the album was finished, the band quickly attracted the attention of several big labels. They eventually signed in the UK to Polydor's enormously successful Fiction imprint (home, amongst others, to Elbow, Snow Patrol, White Lies and Kate Nash).
In The U.S. Black Swan will be released on Original Signal Recordings. "I had some early demos of four songs from Black Swan, and was at Heathrow airport headed back to New York listening to them," commented Original Signal Recordings President and co-founder Lucas Mann. "When `Love Come Rescue' came on my headphones, I had an almost physical reaction to the music. Joel's voice and the guitar just really affected me and I listened to the song over and over. On the plane I spent time listening to "Black Swan Song" and "The Getaway" and knew right away that I wanted to work with the band. I was so impressed with the maturity in the songwriting and really feel that this is their best album as a whole. We are fortunate to work with any band that has achieved success in the past and Athlete have created a true career for themselves, a real accomplishment in this business."
"After everything we've been through in the last couple of years, it feels like we're starting again with this record," says Joel. "We made it without a label, without any pressure and without really having anything to lose. That's exactly how it felt when we first got together. In a lot of ways, Black Swan, is like our second debut album. That's a pretty exciting feeling."