Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bloc Party - A Weekend In The City

Bloc Party's debut album, the critically-adored Silent Alarm marked their card as the eminent intellectuals from the current crop of young British guitar bands. Never afraid to tackle the big issues, but overly-reliant on obfuscating said issues with tons of poetic disguise, they became the new band of choice for the bookish and precocious. Sensitive lads with their minds on higher things than fighting in the chippy or falling drunk out of taxis, it led to snipes from those who prefer their rock 'n' roll to be a bit more meat and potatoes and less vegetarian.

In actuality, Silent Alarm isn't as intelligent as people tended to think it is and is definitely more immediate and accessible than most gave it credit for. A Weekend In The City is most definitely a different record from its predecessor, despite the fact that a lot of the lyrical concerns are unchanged. This album still touches on racism, world politics, youth apathy and the like, but Kele Okereke's lyrics have taken on a much more direct edge, as if he has grown in confidence since last time around.

This leads to some songs lacking a certain subtlety while others gain a much-needed, hammer-blow bluntness. So we get 'Hunting For Witches', that while musically exhilarating is lyrically cringeworthy. The fact that Okereke feels the need to actually mention The Daily Mail (the song is about the xenophobia and vigilantism borne of the right-wing media's sensationalising after the London bombings of July 7th last year) makes you yearn for the wordy obscuring of days gone by. However, a by-product of this new-found outspokenness is that Okereke sounds angrier when it comes to articulating the feelings of rootlessness at being a second-generation Nigerian immigrant on the scathing, 'Where Is Home?'. When he desperately intones, "In every headline, we are reminded that this is not home for us", he sounds both achingly vulnerable and righteously affronted by his place in the world and, indeed, his place in the music sphere as token 'black guy in indie band'.

Another minor gripe though is that the literary allusion on 'Song For Clay (Disappear Here)' comes across as forced and needless. It's an homage to Bret Easton Ellis' classic tale of youthful disillusionment and ennui, but Okereke could have put across the same themes and feelings expressed in the novel without resorting to crowbarred quotes that smack of smart-arsery. In fact, the band are more successful when covering the same ground in the stunning album centrepiece, 'Uniform'. Starting as a typically moody ode to hedonism and escape, it slowly builds towards a shattering explosion of overdriven riffing and crashing rhythms, with Okereke at the centre of the maelstrom, proselytising against shiftless teens, all with nothing to say while moving in xeroxed hordes around shopping centres.

Another subject that Kele decides to challenge head-on and one that looms large over A Weekend In The City, no matter how he tries to deflect from it in interviews, is that of his sexuality. In a recent chat with The Observer, he kind of, sort of came out as gay/bi/not sure (delete as interpreted) as he felt that it was a move he had to make given the homo-erotic nature of two songs in particular, 'Kreuzberg' and 'I Still Remember'. The former is a remorseful treatise on gay promiscuity, while the latter is a bittersweet tale of a boyhood homosexual crush that perversely doubles as the first American single (You can almost hear the sound of pennies dropping all over Middle America at the line, "We left our trousers by the canal").

'Kreuzberg' takes a refreshingly adult look at the regret and emptiness that comes with sleeping around and the kiss-off refrain of "After sex, the bitter taste, been fooled again, the search continues" manages to convey both despair and hope. 'I Still Remember' is a different beast though; an unapologetically romantic, almost emo anthem that soars and swoops, methodically tugging at the heartstrings and seems engineered to be the trigger for couples to melt into embraces at future gigs. That's not to say that it's in any way cynical though, it's much too engaging to be considered cliched. It also plays on the more soulful edges of Kele's voice as he emotes in a way that people won't have heard from him before. In one fell swoop, the image of the band as cold and distant is dashed. The fact that both these songs manage to trade in universals while being thematically clear is testament to this new lucidity and warmth.

The album's highlights are found in the moments where this lyrical punch is matched by dazzling musicality and Garrett Lee's widescreen production values. Bloc Party are the first band to use Lee to his full potential (or perhaps it's the other way around?). His work with Snow Patrol and U2 was equally expansive but where those bands filled the space with hollow bluster, Bloc Party pack each song with huge guitars and that famously tight rhythm section. Bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong are as vital to the band as Okereke or lead guitarist, Russell Lissack.

No more so is this evident than on lead-off single, 'The Prayer'. Those mock-Gregorian chants from 'Banquet' make a comeback, this time around sounding more malevolent, while Kele waxes devotional in a plea for more self-belief. In the chorus though, Tong's whipping, dust-kicking drumming dovetails with a merciless, pummelling bassline as synths whirl and buzz over the top. It's TV On The Radio as produced by Timbaland and it's fucking amazing. If there's a more thrilling indie-rock song this year then it would have to be pretty special.

Elsewhere Lee works his magic with percolating electronics and keening strings on 'On', a paean to the ups and downs of cocaine that is as alluring and disorientating as the drug itself, while on the devastating album closer, 'SRXT' (which takes its name from controversial anti-depressant Seroxat), he turns the band into Sigur Ros, a challenge that they manfully take to, effortlessly swerving from gentle, ethereal balladry into an emphatic, cathartic wall of noise that shows they can 'do' post-rock dynamics just as well as anyone else.

What's most impressive about A Weekend In The City is that the band have made a conscious attempt at not making Silent Alarm mk. 2. It's not something that they pull off without a little elbow grease along the way and not all of it works, but the highs greatly outweigh the lows and the lofty ambitions are, by and large, met with aplomb. The emerging hive-mind opinion of this album as a classic case of sophomore slump is both inaccurate and massively unfair as, in many respects, A Weekend In The City is better than the debut. Despite a few missteps along the way, this is an accomplished, mature album and in today's British musical climate, that's a towering achievement indeed.

Bloc Party - Uniform (mp3)


Anonymous Pru said...

You can almost hear the sound of pennies dropping all over Middle America at the line, "We left our trousers by the canal"

Not necessarily. I was once asked by an intelligent and educated American what a canal was. Apparently there aren't many canals in the US..?

I'm sure your bright and discerning readers will soon correct me if the person I spoke to was in a canal-free minority. ;-)

4:49 am  
Blogger James said...

For a kick-off, I didn't know you knew any intelligent and educated Americans! Apart from Mindy Indie Credential, that is. You'd think that the least well-informed person in the States would have heard about that body of water in Panama though. After all, their president's dad had a bit of a run in with the fella that used to run that stretch of land.

8:53 pm  
Anonymous Pru said...

I know lots of integillent people!

(I think I may have to abandon my aspirations to join the intelligentsia if I admit that I am currently sniggering at the word verification word, because it appears to say something rude...)

2:26 am  

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