British Sea Power ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ – Review

14 Apr

I’d completely forgotten that British Sea Power had a new album out this month; not a big deal for most people but the fifteen year old me would not be happy. British Sea Power were, for a brief time, my favourite band and the first one I saw live. They were my Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and Galaxie 500 before I’d heard any of those bands. They brought something identifiably unique as well. A love for foliage and tea, wildlife and typography, trench coats and taxidermy. I loved their inclusive and progressive idea of Britishness, where tradition mixed with tolerance. I remember counting down the days to ‘Do You Like Rock Music. NOw other priorities have obscured the band from view somewhat. Adult life, with all its turbulence, is fittingly the principal theme of ‘Let the Dancers inherit the Party’.
It’s been four years since the last proper British Sea Power album but in that period they’ve toured multiple times, released a book, made to two obscure film soundtracks, reinterpreted their back catalogue with brass instrumentation and reissued their debut album in a lavish, extensive box set. As a fan it’s often been exhausting to keep up with the band’s more idiosyncratic, indulgent impulses; I’ve often wished for a return to short, direct post-punk anthems. Because – forget about all the intellectual posturing, historical lyricism and diverting interviews – British Sea Power arguably work best as an oddball rock band in the grand tradition of odball rock bands.
So it’s agreeable, in a way, that BSP’s new album is refreshingly free from gimmicks, quirks, constructs and overarching narratives. It easily counts their most straightforward record to date. They dispense with extended Post-rock jams, brass arrangements, and obscure lyrics – pitching the album as one that could logically have arrived between ‘Open Season’ (which contained two top 20 singles!) and ‘Do You Like Rock Music’. For better or worse, British Sea Power have simplified and intensified with a muscular album that also shimmers brightly thanks to a bright and clean production.
Opening track ‘Bad Bohemian’ has been all over 6music playlists now for months and it’s easy to see why. It strikes just the right balance between smart and accessible. The gasping intro to ‘International space station’ also sounds readymade for a football focus compilation, while ‘Keep on Trying’ could almost pass for a recent Coldplay song, it’s so euphoric and trebly. These songs are so much more immediate and enjoyable than anything BSP have put out this decade. But do they really stand up to the old classics? One consequence of returning to a signature sound is that new flaws and failings are brought into greater contrast. Like trying on an old outfit and realising it no longer fits or feels in vogue. ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ often feels like this.
The album’s title might initially seem odd – if you’re anything like me, you don’t associate BSP with dancing. It is a line borrowed from a Ian Finley Harrison poem and makes more sense in the original context. The full extract reads “When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy / Not so when I have danced for an hour / The dancers inherit the party / While the talkers wear themselves out and / sit in corners alone, and glower.” And so what BSP are endorsing is doing over talking. Action over discussion. To this end, there is a distinct (but frustratingly vague) political undercurrent driving this record forwards.
Unsurprisingly for a band whose biggest hit to date served as an invitation to Eastern Europeans (‘of legal drinking age’) to come on over, a sense of Post-Brexit, Post-Trump despair looms over the album. ‘It’s sad now how the glass looks rather empty’ they sing right out the gate. Later on they exclaim ‘Kings of propaganda, won’t you take another look at all the things you’ve done.’ Quotables along these lines are easy to find but typically they never add up to anything substantial. ‘Let the Dancers Inherit the Party’ keeps up the recent BSP albums taste for intellectual waffle and pointed jabs that ultimately leave you feeling empty and unworthy. Like the very prophanda Kings they set out to take down, BSP know how to craft excellent sound bites without offering any real substance.
Some of that hollowness creeps in to the music as well, which is gorgeously rendered but lacking in originality and depth. Considering all the great work they’ve made in the past, British Sea Power sound strangely neutered here. They’ve flirted with normality before but they’ve never sounded this invested in simply going through the motions. As I said at the beginning, that aim for simplicity wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the execution is lacking in spark. Their typically unique subject matter is rendered moot by the tepid vocal delivery. The melodies are half-hated at best; echoes of great songs they’ve made before or great songs that could be, with a little more conviction. The best songs arrive in the first half, before the repetition becomes tiring and the hooks start to muddy. British Sea Power have earned the benefit of the doubt of course. As the smartest, weirdest purveyors of pop-rock and indie, they’re within their rights to aim for something as commercially accessible as this album; which could well serve as a warm invitation for newcomers and beginners to join the BSP party.

6.5/10

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