After losing two members – and hiring some new ones – the pioneering underground band take a dark and spiritual turn
Last November, Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke laid the blame for the recent departure of original members Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong on “someone doing cocaine and someone not being into it”. Listening to ‘Hymns’, it’s not hard to tell which faction of these pivotal indie noir icons stayed in the band. For all of the narcotic dancefloor euphoria on its opening song ‘The Love Within’, this fifth album is about as ready to party as someone who’s just woken up in a skip on New Year’s Day with a head like Hiroshima and a £300 Uber bill.
Instead, ‘Hymns’ swiftly escapes the intense club vibe that once dominated Bloc Party’s sound to shuffle, head bowed, onto a darkened pew and pray for redemption. Their most sombre, haunted and immersive record to date, it’s so drenched in quasi-religious themes and tones it could be a sister piece to the Pope’s recent kick-ass rock album.
After ‘The Love Within’ casts music as religion – its dubsteppy Doppler synths worshipped as “the God vibration” that “pulls us up towards Her” – things take a churchy turn. Kele ponders his spiritual dislocation and talks of his partner as his “saviour” over Benedictine chants on the grime-indebted ‘Only He Can Heal Me’. Then he does a Bon Iver-esque choirboy impression on the stark laptop R&B of ‘Fortress’, sounding like a freshly snipped eunuch lost in the sonic cathedral.
It’s easy to read ‘Hymns’, with its broken tone and tales of disintegration, as Bloc Party’s break-up album, with Kele torn between the Bible and the bottle over the splintering of his band. But it’s rarely that. Frail semi-gospel ballads such as ‘Exes’ are undeniably directed at Kele’s own past lovers and personal failings (“My daddy was a hunter and I am my father’s son”). Only ‘Different Drugs’ – as the title suggests – could be deciphered as referring to ex-bandmates: “Our common ground is shifting,” Kele claims as his usually strained voice morphs into a Kanye munchkin. “It started as a joyride, just a way to let off steam, but now we’re running off the road because you’re asleep at the wheel.”
Rather, ‘Hymns’ finds a fully-in-control Okereke, still tangled in the electronics of his solo albums (“Rock’n’roll has got so old, just give me neo-soul,” he admits on ‘Into The Earth’) fusing with Russell Lissack’s spectral shoegaze guitars to steer one of the century’s most pioneering underground bands into more mature and absorbing, if murkier, waters. A bewitching new Bloc Party has risen from the grave. Praise be.