Daring, deep and confused in equal measure
It’s 2005 and the ’80s post-punk revival is in full swing. The ‘wiry’ guitar sound reigns. The word ‘angular’ is used, on average, 25.3 times per NME. ‘New York Cool’ lives, The Rapture are the world’s hippest band and The Libertines couple post-punk with bohemian glamour to reinvent London. Indie is reborn sexy. Franz Ferdinand are very sexy. Everyone is happy with themselves. Everyone except Kele Okereke, Russell Lissack, Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong, the four men in Bloc Party.
While indie toasted its own cleverness, in true post-punk fashion BP began asking tough questions about love, hate, themselves and, most of all, modern Britain. With 2005’s ‘Silent Alarm’, the Londoners rejected their peers’ retro-ism to become a band of their time, tapping into a 21st century inner conflict every bit as palpable as the Thatcherite tension which post-punk fed from. The title was a metaphor for quiet desperation, a nationwide epidemic Radiohead prophesied in 1997 with ‘OK Computer’, but which Bloc Party were living through. The post-millennial discontent, the wearying pace of life, the information fatigue – the Londoners captured all this with their sharp, relentless, manic music. This was the album as wake-up call,a la post-punk. Indie at its most relevant.
There’s a sense with comeback album, ‘Four’, that Kele and co are returning to an empty stadium. That they’re not relevant any more. The post-punk revival is long dead, and four years after their last record ‘Intimacy’, their fans are all grown up. So are Bloc Party.
It’s rare in rock that men in their mid-30s produce something that resonates with the times. ‘Four’ is not ‘Kid A’. But at its best it excels with a glut of sensitive pop tunes which, although no substitute for exhilarating, provocative post-punk, prove Bloc Party are still capable of depth. ‘The Healing’’s tumbling guitar embodies a peaceful redemption, as Kele falsettos “Take this lifeline”, while ‘Truth’ is a driving live set-closer replete with vocal hooks and emotional peaks. ‘Day Four’ combines The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ and tender-mode Wild Beasts as, carried on keening strings and tinkling guitar, Kele’s angelic vocal evaporates into the mists. Like their 2005 single ‘This Modern Love’, it’s surging but sad. Equally moving is ‘Hard Talk’, a slow ballad about growing to trust your lover that tentatively unfurls. “My body is yours”, concludes Kele, sounding at peace.
But it’s not all good. At its worst, bits of ‘Four’ sound weary, like a band manufacturing ‘anthems’ using crude ballast and clenched exertion in an effort to force attention-grabbing BIGNESS. It’s a stylistic muddle. For starters, smoky delta blues has no place in the Bloc Party vocabulary (‘Coliseum’). Neither does Dinosaur Jr alt-rock (‘Kettling’) or hardcore punk (‘We’re Not Good People’). Or, indeed, nu-metal breakdowns. Where’s the artistic single-mindedness? Where’s the restraint, the daggers, the punch? Perhaps the lack of subtlety is an attempt to make up for ‘Intimacy’’s failed avant-bleepery.
Matters improve greatly with ‘3×3’, edgier for its insane operatic chutzpah (Kele goes full Pavarotti over a face-melting grand finale) and ‘Team A’, which earns its rocky cataclysm (Kele sneering “I’m gonna ruin your life”) by building tension prior to detonation, just like the Party of old. ‘So He Begins To Lie’ is again reminiscent of the musically intelligent rock of their youth, with the band using their brains instead of their fists. It’s spiky and fresh, if blunted by amp distortion. On ‘Octopus’, meanwhile, guitarist Russell Lissack unleashes his best guitar trick – a glitchy blur that evolves into Muse-ish fret-shredding. But it’s ‘VALIS’ that steals the show. It just flies. Great melodies, great hooks, great climax. They haven’t forgotten how to do it, they just need to do it more.