British Sea Power: Do You Like Rock Music?

'Perhaps it’s our island mentality, perhaps it’s just something in the water...'

Perhaps it’s our island mentality, perhaps it’s just something in the water, but eccentricity is a very British trait. There’s something in our psyche that’s inexplicably given to fantastical flights of whimsy and all-encompassing oddness that’s left an indelible mark on our music, art and literature stretching back centuries. No other country in the world could have combined the new-age mysticism of Aldous Huxley with the old-rave stylings of Grace to create gobbledygook as wondrous as ‘Myths Of The Near Future’. Nor could anyone as brilliantly bonkers as Patrick Wolf or Lightspeed Champion’s Dev Hynes have hailed from anywhere but these fair shores.

Brighton’s British Sea Power, however, are the oddball’s oddballs. Once, when we tried to talk to them, they gave us a set of grid references by way of telling us where the interview would take place. They spoke at great and excruciating length about birdwatching and Field Marshal Montgomery, and played on stages adorned with twigs and branches they’d sawn from the local foliage themselves, under the ever-watchful gaze of a plastic peregrine falcon. During their gigs a 10ft bear named Ursine Ultra would occasionally make an appearance, only to be beaten black and blue by various band members. They were, all told, more or less the musical equivalent of riding a penny-farthing backwards down a motorway while eating a packet of Chewits; that is to say, certifiable.

‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ – the title’s not nearly half as ironic as you might think, but more of that later – is the band’s third album. It’s a gloomily anthemic collection of songs that owe less to the bands BSP are most often compared to – Joy Division and The Cure – and more to the transatlantic likes of Arcade Fire and Interpol. And while your average Kaiser Chiefs fan is unlikely to give two hoots about Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, as on ‘Atom’, they’re never less than interesting.

Certainly ‘All In It’, with its Zen-like mantra – “We’re all in it and we close our eyes” – and stately, funereal march, recalls Win Butler and co’s more transcendent moments, brimming with evangelical fervour and church organs that echo out to infinity. Forgive us if we remember them too fondly, but it’s weirdly reminiscent of early Polyphonic Spree if they’d grown up in gloomy Cumbria. Which is only a good thing, obviously.

But, for all the atmosphere and off-kilterness, British Sea Power are still pretty sprightly around a tune, coming closer to the ‘Rock Music’ of the title than they’ve ever been before. If you thought the album’s name was a cheeky thumbing of the nose to the mainstream, you’d be wrong: it’s more an invitation towards it. New single ‘Waving Flags’ is a naggingly anthemic whirlwind of choral swells, reverb-drenched guitars and breathless, smirk-inducing one-liners such as, “You are astronomical fans of alcohol/So welcome in”. Indeed, whether it was intentional or not, it sounds like the best anti-football anthem ever written.

Continuing in that vein, ‘No Lucifer’ begins with “Easy! Easy!” terrace chants and shuddering drums, while Yan ponders “what the future holds” before deciding that “You can always just say no to the anti-aircraft crew/The boys from the Hitler Youth… To Sodom, I will go”. Uplifting and strangely eerie at the same time, it’s the best song on the album and worthy of anything on ‘Funeral’.

But that’s where the problem lies… Much of ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ just feels too familiar. A wink to The Flaming Lips’ ‘Race For The Prize’ here, the influence of ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ there… There’s no problem with any of the songs as such, but you feel some of BSP’s uniqueness – and yes, eccentricity – has been lost in the mix. Case in point: ‘Down On The Ground’ is annoyingly reminiscent of a rustic Interpol on a caffeine binge, while ‘Lights Out For Darker Skies’ sounds like it should be nestling between The Kooks and The Pigeon Detectives on a chart show somewhere, unbelievable though that may be.

Then again, when it’s as much fun as it is, why pick holes in it? After all, when has nuclear physics ever been as alluring as it is on the feral jaunt-pop of ‘Atom’, with its lyrical dissection of the particle in question: “When you get down to the subatomic part of it/That’s when it breaks, you know/That’s when it falls apart”? Ditto for ‘No Need To Cry’’s smokey, psychedelic soul, which sounds like it’s been lost in heat-haze and a cloud of marijuana smoke.

So, accessibility at the cost of eccentricity? Not quite. ‘Do You Like Rock Music?’ might be fashionably rough around all the right edges, but there’s definitely still enough lyrical wit and musical beauty contained herein to warrant your attention. And, at times, your adoration. Let’s just hope they don’t get too used to playing it straight.

Barry Nicolson

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