“At times the kind of urgent freedom they’re playing with is a contrivance, but clearly they’re actually enjoying the playing again…” – Dara Higgins on Bloc Party‘s new LP, Four.
Bloc Party now seem like they’ve been around forever, but their first record only came out in 2005. Back then they boasted a tight, limber rhythm section, slicing, lucent guitar work and Kele Okereke’s tremulous, oddly inflected vocals. They rose to prominence on the back of these insistent indie pop numbers, won awards and became media darlings. Their follow ups weren’t quite as succinct; overproduced, overthought, overwrought. As the audiences increased, so did the bluster, the insecurities. Like many bands who rode on that wave around then, the success became an over promotion, the music suffered, the scrutiny increased. Before long the media are speculating on Kele’s sexuality. If ever there was a signal that your music had stopped being the important thing, there it was.
The new album, Four, their fourth you see, some four years since the four-piece’s last outing, begins after a bit of on mic studio yak, which reoccurs throughout the album. It seems like an inadvertent neurosis, as if the noises and studio suggest that they haven’t taken it too seriously, that they’re about spontaneity and immediacy. The music alone might convey these ideas, but the constant prefacing of a hum or some breathing into a mic overdoes it. It’s supposed to come across as a kinda breezy insight into the simplicity of their work: roll tape, go! But it seems forced, an affectation. That shouldn’t seem remotely important, where it not for the fact it reinforces the notion of transition, a band not yet comfortable with their identity among the machinations of fame and the industry and all that entails. The album is like that too. I won’t say confused, because when it works, it’s among their best stuff, but they don’t seem to know if they’re going to go all chunky blocks of heavily distorted riffing, or pare it back and let Kele take a melody with his voice.
So, it begins with So He Begins to Lie, kicking in with Tong’s steady, well hit drumming, before going all rifftastic on us. 3×3 boots along, a kind of Editors a-like fuzzed up romp, with an archly gothic chorus. More pounding drums drown out the vocals, before Kele starts intoning “No means no” and countering this with his sex-panting thing that he does. “Yes. YES. YES.” Stop the sex panting. That’s all I ask. Real Talk is a staccato ballad, as close as they’ll come to one, anyway. It features a little banjo plucking and finishes with a little narrated vignette, which is as incongruous as it is unnecessary.
Day Four is the record’s anthem. The Snow Patrol number. You know the one. The girls will know the words, they’ll sing along at festivals, regardless of the weather. These kind of songs pay the rent, just ask Lightbody. Kettling contains a terrific, mutil-chorded chorus, sounding eerily like Smashing Pumpkins. The albums best track is the infectious Team A, where the slicing, high fretted guitar shrieks are replaced by a muted, funk-esque figure, backed by a liquid bassline. Maybe Bloc Party have been boning up on their Radiohead, specifically Morning Mister Magpie, but taken the more direct route. Yet again, there’s a little appendix attached to the end, Kele rabbiting on about some spider babies. Why, one wonders at this point, does this keep happening? Does he just go around recording every conversation he has, and really, are these the highlights?
It’s been a few years since they worked together, and the break has done them some good and for the most part they play with intensity, you know, indie boy intensity: Playing arched over your guitar with your knees together, but bended, shuffling slightly, hair in eyes, always downward, moving in semi circles. Occasionally jumping, but very occasionally. The kind of thing they would have done ten years ago, before they started second guessing themselves, and their crowd. Somewhere between the overheavy faux-hardcore riffage of Coliseum, one of a number of tunes which attempt to obscure a lack of dynamism or drama with a wall of distortion, and the somewhat washy Truth, which comes across like a less interesting cover version of V.A.L.I.S., itself the sound of a Bloc Party wannabe band who’ve yet to nail it, lies the truth of this record. At times the kind of urgent freedom they’re playing with is a contrivance, but clearly they’re actually enjoying the playing again, and while the album is ultimately uneven it hints that their best work may yet be ahead of them, rather than behind.