BRITISH SEA POWER: THE DECLINE OF BRITISH SEA POWER (2003)
1) Men Together Today; 2) Apologies To Insect Life; 3) Favours In The Beetroot Fields; 4) Something Wicked; 5) Remember Me; 6) Fear Of Drowning; 7) The Lonely; 8) Carrion; 9) Blackout; 10) Lately; 11) A Wooden Horse; 12*) Childhood Memories; 13*) Heavenly Waters.
That a band hailing from Brighton, East Sussex, would want to be known as «British Sea Power» is probably not very surprising. That it would choose The Decline Of British Sea Power as the title of its debut album is also nothing to write home about — after all, British sea power has been in relative decline over the past century, as every self-respecting Somalian pirate will tell you. That the topics, moods, and melodies of the album will, for the most part, have nothing whatsoever to do with British sea power, and, frankly speaking, not much to do with Britain itself, is a bit more remarkable. But not before you start thinking about it. Come on now, do you really expect a group called British Sea Power to sing about British sea power? What is this — Admiral Nelson's Lonely Hearts Club Band?
As a matter of fact, there are times — quite a few times, to be sure — when British Sea Power sound so much like Arcade Fire that the temptation to brand them as a bunch of second-tier rip-off con artists grows sky-high. Except the glitch is that British Sea Power actually were there first: The Decline came out one year prior to Funeral, and it is almost certain that both bands were developing and polishing their personae completely unaware of each other's existence. The fact that it happened that way simply reflects a «convergence» pattern — apparently, there was an intuitively felt demand for this kind of music on both sides of the ocean, and someone, somewhere, somehow simply had to oblige the spirit of the times.
Basically, British Sea Power play this big, arena-esque, pathos-soaked, heaven-bound type of art-rock where you need loud, but simple riffs, lots of echo, some blue-eyed soul in your occasionally off-key singing, and a post-post-modern attitude where dense, heavily intellectualized lyrics are delivered with an air of the utmost emotional sincerity. If you can believe that a song may begin with lines like "Oh Fyodor you are the most attractive man I know / Your Russian heart is strong and has been bleeding for too long" and reflect strong, unsimulated feeling from the bottom of one's (British) heart, read on. If you cannot, this band is not for you.
Of course, this does not mean that you will never understand what British Sea Power is all about if you haven't read a single line of Dostoyevsky. Unlike Arcade Fire, British Sea Power take very good care to make most of their lyrics more nebulous than the proverbial Brighton fog. Nothing here is about the lyrics as much as it is about attitude: The Decline Of British Sea Power is a ponderous, pretentious lament on the state of things as they are — old ways and lifestyles crumbling, and new ones not being satisfactory. All the complex words and ambiguous imagery are only there to showcase the band's intelligence: if you want to earn the right to complain about the fates of the world, you have to prove your knowledge of the world. In particular, they may have read some Dostoyevsky. It's always useful to read some Dostoyevsky if you want to learn the proper art of complaining about things, anyway.
But no amount of complaining is going to be acceptable if it is stored in faulty song containers, of course. And from a sheer melodic point of view, none of these songs are particularly interesting. There are some fast punk-influenced rockers (one of which, ʽFlavours In The Beetroot Fieldsʼ, clocks in at a hardcore-honoring 1:18), some traditional drone-based shuffles, and some basic Britpop creations with a pretty Kinks stamp on them. If any of the riffs, courtesy of resident guitarists Neil Hamilton Wilkinson and Martin Noble, turn out to be memorable, it is mostly because you have heard them all — or their immediate prototypes — before.
This leaves the band's leader and principal songwriter, Scott Wilkinson, better known as «Yan», as our major hope. And he is appropriately suitable: very far from a great singer, in many ways, in fact, uncannily similar to Arcade Fire's Win Butler (same tendency to either «whisper» or «screech» in the exact same range), but quite expressive — British Sea Power's main modes of action are «dreaminess» and «despair», so the bandleader whispers when he is being dreamy and screeches when he is being desperate: what could be wrong with that? Furthermore, his vocal melodies often succeed where the instrumental ones do not, being transformed into atmospheric instrumental accompaniment.
Thus, ʽFear Of Drowningʼ, the band's first single, is mostly memorable for its slow crescendo, reflected mainly in the vocals — culminating in the chorus ("...we'll swim from these island shores til there's a little fear of drowning, a little fear of drowning..."). It's a nice enough projection of one's own insecurity onto a simple musical canvas, and the lyrical metaphor is fresh and engaging, if not particularly flattering for good old England. The second single, ʽRemember Meʼ, is the album's loudest and angriest rocker, on which Yan exorcises his Sussex demons in a voice that precisely averages David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen (if you thought the theatrical aristocratism of the former and the theatrical working-class straightforwardness of the latter could never be matched, this song transparently proves the opposite).
As the album progresses, it moves ever farther away from loud distorted guitar rock and into the realm of loud folk- and Britpop-based 21st century art-rock: ʽThe Lonelyʼ and ʽCarrionʼ, also released as singles, exemplify this «softer», but no less «epic» streak of the band's creativity, and both are decent, but not exactly heartbreaking anthems for pre-specified market shares of their generations (well, they could be heartbreaking, I guess, for all those youngsters who never gave themselves the trouble of listening to the band's major influences).
They do take a serious risk on ʽLatelyʼ, a track that runs for 14 minutes and, in structure only, reveals yet another influence — Neil Young: starting out as a slow, pompous, and, frankly, rather boring rock-grinder, it then allows itself to be taken into uncharted waters, then return back to shore, share the plunder, and go back into uncharted waters again. As stoner rock / neo-psychedelic jammers, these guys would probably get something like a «B-» from me — competence without excitement — but the gesture can be appreciated for boldness' sake, if not exactly understood. Although there is a fun moment of self-irony somewhere in there, when after a particularly bawdy passage, Yan, distorting his voice, starts asking questions like "do you like my megalithic Rock? do you like my prehistoric Rock? do you like my Teutonic Rock? do you like my hygienic Rock?» Well, I'm not sure if I like it, Yan, but I do like all those nice words you're using. Thanks for asking the question, anyway.
All in all, I do like this album, and maybe, in the absence of Arcade Fire, it could have become a favorite from the last decade; the way things are, The Decline Of British Sea Power is more of a trans-Atlantic precursor for things to come. But it does have its own troubles and its own sorrows that could not be shared by our Canadian friends, so it's not like the emergence of Funeral makes these here songs completely redundant. In short, a tepid, but mildly respectful thumbs up with growth potential. But be warned — the album really sounds nothing like its title would suggest. No sea shanties for you, and no trendy, haughty, foul-mouthed Britpop, either.