Bloc Party ‘Hymns’ – Review

24 Feb

Few bands seem quite so oblivious, or indifferent, to their strengths as Bloc Party. In 2015 they emerged as wiry nerds with a penchant for making thoughtful indie rock bursting with sky-scraping choruses and natty hooks. They possessed a sentimental lyricist who probed and examined worldly matters as well as the more personal ones. His guitar interplay with Russel Lipock was ingenious, the work of two best friends with an instinctual understanding of each other’s style. In Matt Tong and Gorden Moakes they had the most inventive and talented rhythm section in the country. Underpinning it all was that repressed but easily combustible aggression that resulted in some of the biggest indie anthems of the young century – ‘Banquet’, ‘Helicopter’, ‘Like Eating Glass’, ‘Positive Tension’ and ‘Hunting for Witches’ for starters.

Their last two albums unsuccessfully rallied against those qualities, to varying extents. For this spiky bunch of post-punks, forays in to grunge, dance and blues rock ultimately felt indulgent – they were like musical tourists on a gap year. Left field turns are easily accepted if pulled off (as the career of David Bowie was a testament to) but Bloc Party never did, in my opinion. It just seemed so counter-productive. The nimble, duel guitars became sluggish and heavy, Matt Tong’s acrobatic drumming got replaced by a drum machine, and at some point all Kele’s melodies started sounding the same, whilst he upped the cynicism and paranoia in his increasingly bitter lyrics.

Weak songwriting, unrecognisable musicianship and tiresome lyrics were just the start. On ‘Four’, the ‘Nextwave Sessions’, and to a lesser extent 2008’s hit and miss (mostly hit, to be fair) ‘Intimacy’, Bloc Party sounded tired and barely bothered, devoid of both the physical and emotional strength needed to deliver the intense anthems they started off with. All of which is to say, I was a big Bloc Party fan feeling seriously let down. Not that the band owe me anything at all. In ‘Silent Alarm’ and ‘Weekend in the City’ they gave me two of the favourite indie albums of my youth. If those records are Bloc Party’s sole contribution to music history then that’s enough. But a part of me still hopes that they will somehow return to their former glory.

But those of us hoping for a return to the values and style of ten years ago will be disappointed. ‘Hymns’ is not ‘Silent Alarm’ redux. Nor could it be; Tong and Moakes have been replaced. For most bands, losing the drummer and bass player wouldn’t be a massive deal but Bloc Party have always been their rhythm section. It was their most distincitive feature. Then again, considering how drained and out of sorts they sounded on ‘Four’, it isn’t necessarily a band thing. Besides, ‘Hymns’ is made up mostly of quiet ballads, not the kind of material that requires a rhythmic work out. Slow songs have always been the trick up Bloc Party’s sleeve, going back to their very first e.p, and here they get the spotlight they deserve.

Lyrically Kele returns to the honest (sometimes uncomfortably so) mode that has worked well in the past. Thankfully there are none of his well meaning but somewhat didactic and broad lyrics about politics. Here his lyricism is simple and effective and he sings about things he is experiencing first hand. There are also some funny references to the past, things like ‘I’ll sing you a song like I used to, don’t you remember?’ and ‘rock n roll has got so old’

The ballads are mostly moving and the band incorporate electronic and dance influences far more subtly and seamlessly than they did on ‘Intimacy’ – even if the results aren’t quite as exhilarating. The more traditional elements are also incorporated with subtitly and the mix of the old and new never feels jarring. The choir, of sorts, and the organ riffing that fills out ‘The Good News’ are suitable and not glued on. The R&B and soul influences dovetail surprisingly nicely with Kele’s melodies, which are far more ingenious than anything he’s done this decade. Particularly lovely are the break up songs ‘Exes’ and ‘So Real’ which cut to the bone with heartfelt lyrics and sweet, falsetto melodies. ‘What am I supposed to do, when the only good thing about me was you.’ It’s not Shakespeare but it does the job. Less endearing is his sneering disdain towards religion, which becomes obvious on a couple of the tracks. Kele cherry picks symbols of gospel music – devotional lyrics, choirs, organs – but there is none of the depth or poetry. Instead he uses these classic motifs, along with lyrics, to affirm a cynical atheism. It’s cheap and badly judged.

It’s not a flawless record by any stretch; there are a few boring moments, particularly in the middle. You get the impression they were going for minimalism with ‘Into the Earth’ But it just sounds lacking. ‘Fortress’ is awful – nobody wants to hear Kele singing about sex in a register he can’t quite reach. More surprisingly, lead single ‘The Love Within’ is dreadful. This is the type of energetic song they used to do so well but the disgusting, tuneless synth distracts our gaze and the chorus arrives to late to achieve any kind of impact.

More fundamentally, Bloc Party are still not fully utilising their greatest assets. Almost all of the elements that made their debut so compelling have diminished or dissolved entirely. That energy, rhythmic ingenuity, ambition and guitar interplay are nowhere to be found. But there are now at least signs that, in their place, Bloc Party are starting to develop new strengths. ‘Hymns’ is for the most part a definite step in the right direction. It’s a lovely, contemplative and enjoyable record. Bloc Party are a band that have lost their wings but are slowly growing new limbs.

6.5/10

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