Monday, February 1, 2016

album review: 'hymns' by bloc party

You know, if we're looking for a way to categorize indie music in the 2000s, especially the early-to-mid 2000s, it would be the slew of indie bands who blew the world open with borderline classic debut albums and yet couldn't never really recapture the magic throughout the rest of the decade. Of course, it's all a manner of degree, but in the widespread public consciousness, acts like The Killers or Franz Ferdinand or The Strokes or Interpol were never able to really match the lightning in the bottle that was their debut.

And in 2005, that band was Bloc Party. I've gone back to relisten to Silent Alarm and it remains one of the best indie rock records of the 2000s, with a relentlessly tight construction, a fantastic sense of momentum, and lyrics that could match that visceral tension. And then for the rest of the decade, Bloc Party couldn't seem to match it, pivoting towards underwhelming but still pretty solid electronics for A Weekend In The City to the more riotously electronic Intimacy, which I'd argue wasn't quite as consistently good but had stronger highpoints like the absolutely amazing 'Zephyrus'.

So after that, they took four years off, came back with a return to their roots on Four... and look, if they were trying to imitate Silent Alarm, it wasn't working. The heavier guitars didn't have the same sense of tightness or tempo or groove, the production wasn't as sharp, and it felt most like a band trying desperately to recapture what came naturally years earlier. But the roots of that might have run deeper - the band was unstable, and both the drummer and bassist left the band in the following two years. Fortunately they were able to pull together new members - including Justin Harris of Menomena, which was definitely a positive sign - but then the lead-off single 'The Love Within' happened. And while you could see traces of what Bloc Party were in the multi-tracked vocals and percussion, those blocky oscillating keyboards just smothered any tightness the song might have and sure as hell were not a replacement for guitars! In other words, I didn't know what to expect with this, so what did we get with Hymns?

Folks... I tried. I really did. My plan was for this review to come out this weekend but after so many listens to Hymns, I just get nothing from this record. I'm not saying there aren't distinctive elements or pieces that might stand out a bit, but at the end of the day, there's not a song here that I find strong enough to anchor this album or make it worth more relistens. And that's a damn shame coming from the group that once made one of the best albums of the last decade and yet seem to have completely misunderstood all of their strengths for Hymns, and that's the real disappointment.

Now to explain this, we need to focus on what made Bloc Party work in the first place, and I can sum it up in one word: tightness. The guitars had a choppy anxious energy, the bass had enough pulsating texture to support it, and the drumming had enough nervous energy and cracking power to drive it home. Sure, there were atmospheric synth effects and dense vocal mixes, but they operated in service of the grooves and momentum rather than the other way around. And if you want to look at the first crippling blow that hits Bloc Party on Hymns, it's this: the tightness is completely gone. It's most immediately noticeable in the drums - even when Bloc Party were at their most electronic on Intimacy, at least they gave Matt Tong progressions that had some cracking intensity. Louise Bartle does what she can with some pretty sparse arrangements, but the production seems to treat it as perfunctory by smoothing away any cracking power. And it's even worse for the basslines, when you can hear them at all, which takes away that underlying foundation that the keyboards and guitars need - provided, in the latter case, they show up at all. Sure, we occasionally get a decent bassline, like on the verses of 'The Good News' that tries to go into southern gospel without any real grasp of texture or grit, but much more of the record prefers empty, pseudo atmospheric tracks like the very muted 'So Real' or 'Fortress', or when the blubbery, organ-like synths are piled on top of everything like on the lead-off single 'The Love Within' or 'Virtue'. And why anyone would think that jarringly
staccato organ tone sounds better than an actual bassline or guitar swell that you only see snippets of, on interludes like on 'Only He Can Heal Me' or shoved to the background on 'Different Drugs', I have no idea, but the underlying idea comes through on one of the few actual indie rock songs on this record: a drippy, pseudo-mid-2000s R&B tune 'Into The Earth' that reeks of the bad acoustic stuff that Bloc Party used to blow off the stage but now salutes with the lyric, 'cause rock and roll has got so old/ just give me neo-soul'. I could go on about how soul has better grooves than this, but Bloc Party is pulling more from gospel on this record anyway - not gospel that has punch or dramatic swell or bombast or texture, with the closest coming on 'The Good News' or maybe 'My True Name'. Man, it's not even a surprise that Matt Tong went to Algiers if this was the sort of gospel that Kele Okereke wanted to make, so slow and limp that I completely lose interest, especially considering how clumsy the atmosphere feels layered.

And make no mistake, I'm singling out Kele Okereke for this issue, not just as the primary lyricist but also because this music doesn't work for his vocal style at all. His yelping tones have never been perfect, but that's one of the reasons they worked so well against the urgency of Silent Alarm. This material is much smoother and places him much more front-and-center - and man, either the multi-tracking and harmonies needed to be amped up or Kele isn't nearly as good as he thinks he is against this production. 'Fortress' is a prime example of how he slips off key and 'Living Lux' shows him not even trying to keep the rhythm, but the most grating he gets is on 'Into The Earth', where his mugging, half-spoken verses trying to sound sexy didn't remotely work, especially considering how sterile and gutless the instrumentation was.

But now we've got to talk about the lyrics, and the one place where this record comes close to interesting: an attempt to infuse religious iconography and concepts into relationships. Now I'd definitely question how smart this is, idolizing and projecting upon one's partner in that way, but it does manage to give some songs a hint more drama than you'd otherwise expect. And plus, there is an underlying core to the idea that love and faith can inspire similar sorts of emotions. But where this album gets interesting is in the inversion, of how when the relationship inevitably fails and our narrator tries to go to God for answers... and it doesn't fulfil as expected. The void isn't filled in the same way, and tracks like 'The Good News' and 'Virtue' at least try to pose that question, even if the clumsy, ham-fisted writing doesn't leave room for nuance. And while I'm not exactly wild about either of the final two tracks - 'Exes' and 'Living Lux' - they at least try to capture a guy sending out a half-hearted apology to those he has hurt and returning to some vestige of normality to make up for things. It feels clumsy, desperate, and a little pathetic - and yet if the instrumentation was better I'd say they were the best parts of the record.

And yet at this point, I feel like Bloc Party has spent the last of the momentum and good grace Silent Alarm gave them, with this being the listless, tedious, and underwhelming swan song to drive it home. There are ideas here that with a little more grit and texture in the production and vocal delivery or with a real foundation could have delivered something with soul and power, but even if that the writing would still feel half-formed and the album would still still run longer than it should. For me, it's a light 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan, but if these are the hymns Bloc Party are singing, these prayers will probably go unanswered.

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