Friday, 29 January 2016

Bloc Party: Hymns

A lot of thoughts crossed my mind while listening to this album, all of which I was going to write up.
...None of which I wrote down.1
  • If you wanted more songs like ‘This Modern Love’ here they are...
  • There’s a specific hard rock Bloc Party riff that can be identified in songs like ‘Helicopter’, ‘Hunting for Witches’, and ‘One Month Off’...
  • There's something gospel about this album...
And other stuff like that.

It will be easy for rock fans to dismiss this album. And I can already hear the dissenters yelling "the party's over!" But what they dismiss is what they fail to recognise.
        Where Four was a bit of a mess – ideas undeveloped, throwaway riffs at the forefront, noise for noise’s sake – Hymns is a calm affair, pursuing light rock that’s about as far from anything anyone expected after getting the mixture of music that comprises the dance orientated ‘Flux’ and ‘One More Chance’ singles, the Four album where it felt like they were attempting to get back to how they began, and the The Nextwave Sessions EP where who-the-fuck-knows what was happening. (Okay, to be fair, we saw The Nextwave Sessions coming after hearing the first two songs on Intimacy, and those songs being followed through with ‘Octopus’...)

‘The Love Within’, which opens the album like a relaxed version of both 'Octopus' (Four) and 'Ratchet' (The Nextwave Sessions), begins with a direct quote from A Weekend in the City’s ‘The Prayer’, the first line of both songs being “Lord give me grace and dancing feet” as though that’s your insight into this album: It’s about grace.
        And forgiveness.
        There’s a strong sense of religiosity that flows through these tracks without being overtly devotional. While it’s befitting of the album title, it’s also appropriate that the title is Hymns as the songs musically provide the backdrop for Okereke’s pleas towards a saving grace, whether that be God or a physical partner seems irrelevant. Okereke sings “For only he can heal me with his touch, help me overcome it” in the second song. Here the backing vocals repeat the title like they were a gospel rock choir and the guitars bring some chorus contrast during the break.
        The most lyrically devotional perhaps is the song ‘The Good News’: “I used to find my answers in the gospels of St John, now I find them at the bottom of this shot glass. Everyday I’d go down to the water and I’d pray since you left me that way. Oh Lord I’m trying to keep my sights on the good news that’s in my heart.” Meanwhile the music and melodies keep the vibe positive to reinforce the meaning behind all of it.

That positivity is what is overt, however. And while that will be off-putting for some, others will move with it and discover that the catchy vocal lines that are present in the best of Bloc Party’s work are also present on this album.
        It will just be unfortunate if those who dismiss this album view that positivity as emotionless. But that is simply mistaking depression, problems, or heartbreak, as the only emotions. Okereke is never dispassionate in anything he sings. The emotion is always there and regardless of whether you like this album or not, that has to be acknowledged – in no way does it lack emotion. Perhaps it lacks the raw emotion of a brand new band carving it up on the indie front – sure it lacks that – but that’s because the band isn’t brand new anymore, to expect that is idiotic. This is why Four feels like it never really works – even the second album was a much tighter affair. But here Okereke sings just as passionately to all his exes that he has left behind – “All these words will fall short, but I must try.” The sincerity is almost heartbreaking.

If you need one song from the previous albums that works as a reference point for what appears on Hymns, that song would be ‘Real Talk’ from the previous full length Four. The unfortunate part is that ‘Real Talk’, as simple and gentle as it is, still has a propulsive rhythm section that pushes the song underneath Kele Okereke’s heart-felt vocals. With the departure of super-drummer Matt Tong, who provided an abundance of energy on previous albums with erratic beats, and the quitting of Gordon Moakes, whose unobtrusive bass lines subtly knew when not to play and when to push their weight from underneath, Bloc Party no longer has those two elements that lifted up mediocre songs and propelled great songs to greatness.
        Russell Lissack’s guitars have been stripped of all their distortion – no more pounding out big riffs, though sometimes those riffs still peak their eyes out with a clean guitar tone (‘So Real’), while ‘The Good News’ chorus brings back the blues inspired riffs first heard at the beginning of ‘Coliseum’ (Four). Backing vocals consistently provide an uplifting feel despite the sometimes downer lyrics. And this is the album all over: where songs like Intimacy’s ‘Better than Heaven’ lament the loss with electronics, soaring vocals, and bitter lyrics that would build to a culmination of full band dynamics, textures on Hymns remain thin with atmospheric guitars, keys, and vocals that are questioning rather than angry and only occasionally rise to soar, but in these cases (‘A Different Drug’) they soar on their own. When the spirit lifts (‘Into the Earth’) clean indie pop takes over and the feel of acceptance pervades the lyrics – “Into the earth our bodies will go” – as the melody remains happy and the beat gently grooves.

        On this album the music never takes centre stage, as the lyrical themes of finding peace and moving on seem to be the focus. While that’s highly understandable considering the topics, it’s also a problem. Louise Bartle’s drums are there, but they are never really there; Justin Harris' bass is so far down in the mix you'll barely notice that there's a bass at all. The rhythm section sits in the background, tidy, polite – too polite. While this doesn’t necessarily detract from the musicians' abilities, it does speak more for the album being a Kele Okereke affair rather than a fully fledged band album.

        The one song that gets closest to their pre-Silent Alarm EP era is the song ‘My True Name’ with it’s clean guitar intro, but suddenly it takes on a heavy synth backing that feels ripped straight out of the 80s New Wave era. It is one of the stronger songs on the album, and there is something undoubtly powerful about how they have chosen to use this influence. With moments like this, it’s clear they will never truly “go back” to being the indie rock band that won so many people's hearts with their hybrid of dance and rock, but there will always be hints. You might hear a guitar riff here, a vocal line there, but with a new drummer and bassist, those frantic beats and rhythms are gone.

There’s a catchiness to the music that isn’t immediately noticeable, and is what those who have given up after a first listen will never discover; others will latch on to the straight forward beats and allow the music to wash over them as it is meant to do, rather than knocking them over like much of Bloc Party’s previous albums were wont to do.
         We’ll probably never hear songs as powerful as ‘Like Eating Glass’ and ‘Banquet’ again, or be bowled over by heavy riffs like ‘One Month Off’ and the desperation of ‘Talons’. But that’s okay, because those song are there to listen to whenever we want. Hymns deserves to be appreciated for being brave enough to wear both the pop influences and gospel inspirations on it’s sleeves, and to continue the progression of a band trying something new and different.

1 Except that sentence. I did write that sentence down! Well, technically I spoke it. I spoke it into my memo app on my cell phone as I drove down the highway listening to this album. Shut up. Don't judge me.

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