We’ve come to presume that for bands to be important they should be energetic, edgy, and above all else confident. Sure, many of the world’s most important artists have been shy and maladjusted when not performing – Jimi Hendrix being just one explosive example – but when performing, to be considered important, indecision and hesitation needs to be banished to the wings.
So it’s refreshing to listen through Bloc Party’s second album A Weekend in the City, a record that is filled with awkwardness, uncertainty, and tongue-tying shyness. On a lyrical level, the desparate characters that float through this album, searching for meaning in the weekend, are consistently aware of there inability to seize the day. “Lord, give me grace and dancing feet, let me outshine them all” (The Prayer or “You should have asked me for it, I would have been brave”.
On a musical level, as well, there’s a restraint and tentativeness on many of the songs that, perhaps might work against them in terms of three-minute radio plays, but makes the album all the more intriguing. On first listen there are enough hooks, and twists to encourage you to delve deeper – rather than the saccharine-rush of many of their contemporaries’ singles. For example, On, a portrayal of recreational drug use which starts with the a far from emphatic drum beat and vocals. It builds up steadily, but never threatens to explode into some guitar-thrashing frenzy, that crucial opportunity for an MTV-choreographed moment of youth & energy for the marketing men – (it does, though, have a wonderful off-beat chorus, with that lyrical thread running through again “You make my tongue loose, you make me stutter free, I can charm the room”).
That’s not to say, though, that the album is a complete shrinking violet. This is an album that ambitiously strives to record that ever-elusive zeitgeist, and that necessarily demands a certain amount of anger. Uniform rails against “commerce dressed up as rebellion”, with a pent up rage that finally explodes (with a riff that, while decidedly un-electronic, brings back to mind the Okereke’s collaboration with the Chemical Brothers Believe). A rage that is, though short-lived, as if the loss of control is almost embarassing
Hunting for Witches is perhaps, the most polemical, pointing the finger at the fear-mongers who have soured the optimism of the ’90s. It’s a brave song, with imagery that is disconcertingly ‘now’. It opens with a narrator perched on a roof with a shotgun and a six-pack of beer: “As bombs explode on the 30 bus, Kill that middle class indecision, Now is not the time for liberal thought, So I go hunting for witches, Heads are going to roll”. Musicians are rarely, though, thanked for entering the clearly de-limited area of politics, so expect them to take a bashing for this.
On the downside, as with any band intent on emphasising the lyrical side, there are moments when forcing the thought to conform to the rythm of the music ends up sounding clumsy – and music should rarely sound clumsy. That, in fact, is what is wrong with 90% of the albums that hover in the ‘concept album’ category – and this album certainly has narrative threads running through and linking the songs. At a certain point in any concept album, vital lines that just don’t scan will be included, regardless of the fact that when sung they stink. On the written page, they work. So, for example, in the captivating song Kreuzberg, Okereke sings “Saturday night in East Berlin, We took the U-Bahn to the east side gallery”. On the page it sounds promising – recorded, though, he hast to add in an extra syllable to the east, singing “Saturday night in Ee-East Berlin”, which grates needlessly. That, my friends, is why poetry and lyrics should never be confused. Lyrics must fit the music.
It is, though, a minor quibble, for what is a very special record.