Making music is clearly Kele Okereke’s lifeblood. He’s had a productive decade in his solo guise amid numerous Bloc Party hiatuses; between 2010 and 2017 he dropped six releases under his own name namesake plus two Bloc Party records (‘Four’ and ‘Hymns’). Now he’s written a musical with an original soundtrack, ‘Leave To Remain’. The play tells a cross-cultural tale, set against a turbulent Brexit backdrop, of a young gay couple and their uncertain future. Away from the visual theatrics, aurally Okereke has produced some of the finest music of his solo career.
‘Leave To Remain’ hears the musician combine West African highlife music, which his Nigerian parents played to him as a child, with the dance music of his adulthood. This was a conscious decision given that Okereke’s musical is about the love between a British man of Nigerian descent and a white American man (the play is set in London). Amid the album’s busy polyrhythmic pulses, there are plenty of throbbing techno beats and fizzing synths. At times Okereke welds the organic and the synthetic so beautifully that you wonder why he’s waited this long to show it off.
Lead single ‘Not The Drugs Talking’, a brooding, jittering dance-rock paean to finally letting love in, is reminiscent of mid-career Bloc Party (see ‘The Prayer’ and ‘Song for Clay’). But elsewhere Okereke’s highlife experiments are placed front and centre. There are ashiko drum sounds and African call-and-response yells on ‘The Proposal’, with synth snaps and rumba guitars darting about. On ‘No Blue Skies’, Okereke allows a narrative to unfold between two siblings, buoyed by growling sub-bass and xylophone twinkles that recall the African balafon instrument.
‘The Fight’, with its is sunny licks and finger-tapped drums, sits tonally at odds with the song’s lyrics, which detail a lover’s paranoia (“Are you fucking him? I need to know”). Okereke seemingly uses these bitter contrasts to stir the drama; however, you can’t help but think the effect of this would be fully realised onstage. ‘More Than You Know’ occupies similar territory. Its balmy, Balearic house tropes jar with the emotions of a character grappling with his sexuality.
Album closer ‘Leave To Remain’ is the best example of Okereke effortlessly fusing genres, replete with Afrobeat rhythms, zippy guitars and big sub-bass blooms. Certainly, this rich tapestry of sound makes up for what the song lacks in memorable hooks. Nevertheless, Okereke’s statement of intent remains strong throughout the record: this is an effective, moving and – at times – profound marriage of musical and cultural worlds.