BLOC PARTY: HYMNS (2016)
1) The Love Within; 2) Only He Can Heal Me; 3) So Real; 4) The Good News; 5) Fortress; 6) Different Drugs; 7) Into The Earth; 8) My True Name; 9) Virtue; 10) Exes; 11) Living Lux; 12*) Eden; 13*) New Blood; 14*) Paraiso; 15*) Evening Song.
That's right, kids — Hymns. Please to remember Bloc Party, once an indie rock band with a Liverpudlian Igboid frontman venting out all the frustration that a progressive-thinking modern day British youngster with African roots could accumulate. To be honest, ten years on few people probably remember the original impact of Silent Alarm, but you just might remember at least the fact that its power was very much dependent upon a fabulous young drummer called Matt Tong. Well, this is a new Bloc Party, kids: Matt Tong is no longer in the band, and neither is bass player Gordon Moakes, and that's all right because Bloc Party are no longer a rock band — they sing hymns now. It's all about the soul now, brother. ʽOnly He Can Heal Meʼ, see? With ʽThe Love Withinʼ. ʽThe Good Newsʼ is ʽSo Realʼ, you're just one step away from learning ʽMy True Nameʼ and spending the rest of your life on ʽDifferent Drugsʼ. Instead of multiplying ʽExesʼ, you will learn to live on the ʽFortressʼ of ʽVirtueʼ, and when you finally go ʽInto The Earthʼ, this will be but a mere technical formality to accede to ʽLiving Luxʼ.
Incidentally, Kele Okereke "has denied the new material is explicitly religious" (The Guardian) — that's like saying that ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ was actually a song about a chocolate Sauron. True, not all the songs on the album are about religion: some are about fucking, but they, too, are hymns from a certain point of view. In any case, there's nothing wrong, per se, about a musician suddenly taking a strong spiritual turn — after all, Kele has been in the music business for ten years now and he is certainly entitled to a bit of ambition, and at least one long-distance call to the Transcendental Plains. The problem is, Bloc Party have never been that great a band when it comes to pure music, and ever since Intimacy showed us how really bad they can get when they mellow out (and Four showed us that not all was lost as long as they returned to a rock paradigm), the general ability of Kele Okereke to stun us with the highly charged emotional vibration of his suffering heart has been under heavy suspicion.
I have to admit that he really tries, and that Lissack has also joined this game of searching for advanced spiritual enlightenment — by experimenting with his guitar and making it sound like a synthesizer (he claims that he did not play any actual synths on the record, but that's sort of a moot point, since new band member Justin Harris, besides bass, is also credited for synths anyway). It is a novel approach, for instance, when your opening hymn begins with the request "Lord, give me grace and dancing feet", and the Lord proceeds to do just that as the song becomes a straightforward dance-pop number (once it has evolved through the "ugly synth loop that sounds like a stalling spaceship" phase of the first couple of minutes). I'm sure this is probably far from the first time that the Lord has been praised in techno terms (I just googled "techno gospel" and I already wish I didn't), but it might be the first time that a former rock band switched to techno gospel, so throw on an extra point for Brave New World Exploration.
As the music goes on, it becomes clear pretty soon that this is still a «pop» band (at least Kele still thinks largely in terms of verses and choruses), but that they have no more intentions of rocking out — and if the musical evidence is not enough to convince you, then further on down the line the man makes it verbally clear as well: "Rock and roll has got so old / Just give me neo-soul" (ʽInto The Earthʼ). This is not «neo-soul» in the sense of D'Angelo, though — the band does not enlist any jazzy brass sections, does not show signs of hip-hop merger, and there are only a few tracks that employ a (not too prominent) gospel choir. «Soul» as in «self-consciously soulful vocalization», yes, but one that is surrounded by music that is equally influenced by Talk Talk, Radiohead, Al Green, and Donna Summer. Admirably experimental, yes, but not too memorable and, worst of all, not too breathtaking.
Yes, Kele somehow emerges endowed with an almost beautiful singing voice, but in his search for originality he seems to overstep the line. It begins with the lyrics — trying to update erotic lyricism in ʽFortressʼ, he ends up with lines like "And I'm a fool for the sight / Of all the gold between your thighs", or "Reach down and feel how strong / My love grows just for you". If he were a swaggy hip hopper, that would at least be adequate — but ʽFortressʼ is a soft-textured ballad with lilting falsetto vocals, an ode of tenderness, and even romantic pornography deserves less cheesy verbalization than this. And this inadequacy pervades the album from start to finish: every single song just takes itself way too goddamn seriously without providing enough musical justification for it.
It's hard to explain why Hymns does not work as a whole, because almost any individual song here, if listened to long enough, might click on some level (the singing is decent, the arrangements are creative, some of the choruses begin to stick etc.; and I have come to almost love the only song on the album that actually rocks — ʽThe Good Newsʼ, with a fairly gritty-swampy steel guitar pattern in the chorus and a certain sense of irony in the title). It is precisely because the album tries to bite off more than it can chew that it fails — there may be enough faith and sincere feeling in the heart of Kele Okereke, but there's just not enough raw (or cooked) talent here to produce a record that would be the modern day equivalent of All Things Must Pass, What's Going On, Spirit Of Eden, and OK Computer all at the same time. ʽOnly He Can Heal Meʼ wants to be the most sincere song about God's love ever written, ʽMy True Nameʼ needs to be the most passionate song about devotion to a loved one ever serenaded, ʽVirtueʼ strives to be the sharpest self-flagellating confession ever put to music — well, maybe not, but all these songs are not so much pop tracks or musical experiments as they are declarations of Spirituality, and in these matters, you can have no objectivity, you can only have faith, and I have no incentive to place my faith in Kele Okereke as the one true God (or at least, one true Prophet) of 2016.
That said, I will not denigrate the album, either: I hated it upon the first listens, but it does have its moments, and despite some lyrical crimes against good taste, eventually you might come to appreciate Kele's and Lissack's hunt for Truth. At the very least, Okereke is not an exaggeratedly hateful whiner, and his vibe is a decent balance between depression and optimism. If this is a failure, it's at least an interesting one, rather than just a stupid embarrassment.