London takes a pounding, but Kele and co find emotion at the capital’s heart
London. Dog shit on pavements. Tube train commuters packed tighter than battery hens. The good liberal’s beggar conundrum: do you walk on past, guilt sirens blaring, or drop another quid into the Special Brew fund? For some bands, London is a playground, a pitch for a cheeky ‘Parklife’ kick-around – or portal to an Arcadia of all-night parties and satisfying casual sex. For others, it’s a panic attack waiting to happen. For Bloc Party, you’d better believe, it’s happening.
Bloc Party’s second album, unmistakably, is a change of pace. ‘Silent Alarm’ was an austere salute – the band spelling out their rather mechanical manifesto as “an autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day”. Then, atop taut, propulsive post-punk grooves that let in little light, they promised special things on the horizon in ‘Positive Tension’… “Something glorious is about to happen!”
Glorious things did happen: platinum sales, tours of Japan, an NME Album Of The Year. Maybe it’s the hangover after the party, maybe it’s a response to the inevitable ratcheting of expectation – but now we find our heroes confused, upset, desperately trying to make sense of the world and themselves. ‘A Weekend In The City’ is tender and reflective, edgy and embittered; a difficult and emotional beast that jolts with nervous electricity. Musically denser than its predecessor, with a distinct electronic edge courtesy of producer Jacknife Lee, it’s crammed with looped rhythms, shimmering guitar ambience and sudden solos that spew white-hot sparks. Less important is the taut, driving interplay between bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong – a shame. They’re the best rhythm section in UK indie, and in its place is a chaos of ideas that’s sometimes messy, sometimes impressive, but on first listen, close to overwhelming.
We join Kele Okereke at the deep end, struggling for breath in the Muse-like whirlwind of rock operatics that is the opening ‘Song For Clay (Disappear Here)’. “East London is a vampire”, he sings, from a vacuum in the middle of the storm, “it sucks the life right out of me”. Did someone say emo? Well, a bit. But there’s more to Bloc Party’s malaise than winsome poetry. The spiky ‘Hunting For Witches’ tackles the tabloids’ crusade against immigration (“There are enemies among us/Taking our women and taking our jobs”) while ‘Where Is Home?’ sees Okereke dissecting his identity as a second-generation Nigerian immigrant. Sadly, it’s one of the album’s main musical misfires – the vocals are jarring and never quite gel with the stuttering electronic backdrop – but Kele’s rage throws up some impressively vicious imagery: “I want to stamp on the face of every young policeman”, he seeths, “I want to trample the fingers of every young judge”. ‘On’, meanwhile, is about the seductiveness of cocaine – blissful and rushy, but with Russell Lissack summoning a chorus of discordant guitars that suggests a darkness beyond the buzz.
Behind the vitriol and chaos, mind, ‘A Weekend In The City’ hides a tender, emotional core. Now, if you’ve read an interview with Kele Okereke and come away with the impression he’s a humourless snob, you’re forgiven (self consciousness rarely works well on the page). It’s true, there could be something slightly sour about songs like ‘Waiting For The 7.18’ – a rock star sneering at commuters with their “crosswords and sudoku”. Luckily, Bloc Party know enough to spike their cynicism with little pockets of sentimentality: see the pretty arrangement, tapped xylophones à la Radiohead’s ‘No Surprises’, or the flight of fantasy that heralds the song’s climax. “If I could do it again”, trembles Kele, on one of the record’s sweetest lines, “I’d climb more trees/I’d pick and eat more wild blackberries”.
Oh, and there’s sex. Rumours about Kele’s sexuality have followed Bloc Party from early on, but he’s always steadfastly refused to comment in interviews. There is no grand coming out here, but in three beautiful songs towards the record’s close, Kele opens up, just a little. ‘Kreuzberg’ is about the yearning for intimacy when casual sex is all that’s on offer, but it’s the remarkable ‘I Still Remember’ that comes closest to a statement. The story of a relationship between two schoolboys that blurs the line between intense friendship and burgeoning romance, it’s vividly detailed (“We left our trousers by the canal/And our fingers, they almost touched”), hugely affecting, and a very elegant ‘fuck you’ to a media obsessed with painting gayness as smutty or comedic.
Finally, the album’s penultimate song, ‘Sunday’, is a sleep-smeared love song that sees Kele swing uncharacteristically close to satisfaction, reconfirming his pledge to “a private kind of happiness”. If you’re looking for an outright revelation, tough: this bedroom door’s shut. But the real achievement of ‘A Weekend In The City’ is its path to this conclusion, pulling hard-won moments of contentment from a maelstrom of anger and confusion. That’s a revelation of sorts. And if musically, ‘A Weekend…’ is not quite the equal of its predecessor – too busy and jumbled, with a synthetic edge that doesn’t always work – it remains the sound of one of Britain’s best bands exploring their voice, still hunting for a better tomorrow.