Bloc Party Learns to Transcend
London has basketball courts? I guess that makes sense
Silent Alarm, Bloc Party's first album, came in this weird little bubble of time when all these jittery postpunk bands with nervous rhythm sections and vaguely anthemic choruses were coming out and every press outlet was treating all of them like the best shit ever. That's not really a great context for a piece of music, especially one as blank as Silent Alarm, an album that sounded pretty much like all those postpunk-revival records piled on top of each other and melted into a faceless whole. But I liked Silent Alarm just fine. The drummer and bassist had evidently spent a lot of time listening to rap and jungle, and that monolithic rhythmic hugeness bled into their locked-in clatter. Most of the songs came with big, climactic moments, even if I couldn't tell what those big, climactic moments were about. One song sounded a lot like Joy Division's "She's Lost Control," and I totally love "She's Lost Control." But Silent Alarm never quite pulled me in. When work was hectic, the album would sound pretty good in the background, so I'd listen to it then and ignore it the rest of the time. When I finally got an iPod later that year, I didn't put Silent Alarm on it. I did go see Bloc Party at Roseland a couple of months later, probably because I needed something to write about that day, and it was one of the most boring and listless shows I've seen since arriving in New York. That was my first time at Roseland, New York's worst venue by a considerable margin, and I probably didn't realize at the time that the show's all-around shittiness had at least as much to do with the setting as it did with the band. But that's just it: Bloc Party were such ciphers that they couldn't do anything other than reflect the shittiness of their surroundings. They weren't ready to transcend anything. In the year and a half since that show, I don't think I spent more than ten minutes thinking about Bloc Party until Monday. On Monday morning, I was watching the previous night's DVRed episode of Subterranean, and they showed the video for "I Still Remember," the new Bloc Party single. All of a sudden this song was bending light and melting air and forcing its way into my brain. So Bloc Party has figured out how to transcend. Good for them.
The video for "I Still Remember" doesn't do the song any favors. It's a tragic piece of shitty special-effects gimmickry, the camera continually zooming backwards for three minutes and fifty seconds while a million repeated images of the Bloc Party guys sitting on trains fly past. It's really boring, visually static and weirdly outdated, the sort of thing that usually has me tapping the fast-forward button before the first chorus kicks in so I can go ahead and get to whatever Silversun Pickups video they're showing this week. But the song itself kept me anchored. Musically, "I Still Remember" is Bloc Party's stab at Coldplay/U2 power-ballad theatrics, and I'm surprised they didn't try it earlier; they're great at that stuff. Russell Lissack's guitar is as spidery as ever, but it rubs up against the track's glistening bed of synths in a way that pushes both of them stratospherically upwards, while the rhythm section dudes figure out that maybe they should give their clenched whomp a rest just this once, relaxing enough to let the cymbals splash. Kele Okereke's voice, usually a paranoiac rasp, becomes a blissful sigh. It's a better New Order song than anything New Order has recorded in the past fifteen years, and it's also the first Bloc Party song I can remember where the lyrics go into any identifiable emotion at all.
Okereke sings about when he was a kid, about an afternoon hanging out with someone he totally adored. Right now, Okereke is in the midst of a protracted coming-out process with the vampiric British press, and the person he's singing about seems to be a dude, but the lyrics don't offer a whole lot of clues either way. "I kept your tie," he sings, but he could be singing about Avril Lavigne for all we know. Still, the longing in the lyrics have this great, recognizable specificity: "On that teachers' training day / We wrote our names on every train / Laughed at the people off to work." I once read an interview with Linkin Park where Chester Bennington mentioned how he never talks about specific situations in his lyrics because he wants listeners to be able to fit their own meanings in. Linkin Park has sold enough records that Bennington's approach seems to work, at least as a business model. But I have a much easier time relating to lyrics like the ones Okereke sings here: I never spent a day off school doing train graffiti, but it sounds like something I could've done, and so the emotional punch of the situation totally resonates. There's a ton of regret in the song, but there's also a sort of fond happiness: Okereke's glad he got to spend this day with this guy, but he still looks back on it and wonders what else might've come out of it. He doesn't have to tell us all that stuff; it all just creeps out as soon as he lets his guard down enough to tell us about that one day.
A Weekend in the City, the new Bloc Party album, is a huge leap upward from Silent Alarm. Lyrically, it's focused and direct; the songs make sense even when we don't share Okereke's experience with their subjects. Musically, the band is a lot more confident than they once were; they're well on their way toward figuring out exactly who they are. But nothing on the album moves me the way "I Still Remember" does. Nothing on any album I've heard lately moves me like that.
Voice review: Chris Hawke on Bloc Party's Silent Alarm
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