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Audio Reviews
by Bloc Party
Wichita Records (2008)
There are times when I have wanted desperately to describe Bloc Party as the Oasis of indie rock—a band of upstarts whose abilities are seemingly overshadowed by the publicity surrounding them. I admit it: it’s the cynic in me. Having been propelled forward by the infamous NME hype machine in 2005, when their debut full-length Silent Alarm was named Album of the Year, Bloc Party has spent precious little time resting on their laurels. Instead, they've juggled a manic schedule of local performances, international tours, and marathon studio sessions with remarkable dexterity. It’s too good to be true. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Despite this constant sense of forward motion, Bloc Party remains more or less unchanged by their rapid rise to success. As ever, the London-based foursome relies heavily upon frontman Kele Okereke’s croon-to-shout vox and six-string point-counterpoint with guitarist Russell Lissack’s own biting riffs, whetting their sharp melodies on Gordon Moakes’ low-lying bass lines and Matt Tong’s metronomically precise percussion. It’s a consistent formula that has seen minimal alterations, staying fairly true-to-form from Bloc Party’s self-titled EP all the way through last year’s sophomore outing, A Weekend in the City. Even those added studio touches—among them: chop-shop vocal layering, synth, brass, glockenspiel and choral embellishments—that do appear on their third album, Intimacy, are not all that extra-ordinary, especially when you consider the numerous remixes and tech-heavy b-sides that Bloc Party has released or co-signed over the years.

That there is nothing incredibly unusual to report here should come as no surprise at all. Having spent the past six years carving out a rather cozy niche in Britain’s modern post-punk scene, Bloc Party would be daft to abandon the comfort (not to mention marketability) of their signature sound and style so abruptly. If anything, they’ve begun to spruce their niche up a bit, sanding down the rough-hewn walls, adding a few throw pillows, and making sure the rug ties the whole thing together.

Regardless of Intimacy’s sonic sameness and familiar stomp-swagger presentation, there is a bleeding heart to the album that belies its pristine studio gloss and somewhat overwrought production values. Intimacy may sound bigger and come across more cleanly than past Bloc Party albums, but, if I might paraphrase a line from Tacoma folk-rockers Roy, Okereke & co. have yet to auto-tune their souls.

To whit, Bloc Party’s third full-length release is a “breakup album”, and, fittingly enough, it is both overtly and near-entirely concerned with the hewing of the heart and the cleaving of the spirit. Moreover, like the duplicity of those very descriptors, there is a muddled indistinctness to Intimacy’s interwoven musings on attachment and detachment. While Okereke’s lyrics frequently spit a great deal of bile at former lovers and failed relationships, they also linger affectionately on them, parsing through mutually pleasant and painful memories like so many seemingly-random polaroids kept safe in the back corner of a dusty bureau drawer. It’s almost masochistic, and, in a way, Intimacy uses the complex commingling of love and hate—alternatively, lust and disgust—as a means of understanding (and, in a way, relishing) its bitterness. Think of it as emotional alchemy, a means of transforming a sour tonic into a tasty, arguably therapeutic aperitif.

Again, this is neither new nor novel, and any Nick Hornby-loving sad sack who has come through a bad break more-or-less intact could tell you as much. Since roughly 95% of the world’s musicians and poets (with a 5% margin of error) have experienced heartache and relied on it for inspiration, one could argue that Bloc Party is treading on a pretty well-worn lyrical path.

But the devil is, as ever, marching lockstep with the details, and it is all those little things that save Bloc Party’s Intimacy from being quickly disregarded as yet another entrant into the Musical Hall of Maudlin Self-Pity. Blueberries, wristwatches, ravens, flowers, Saint Paul, William Blake, E.E. Cummings, and a host of seemingly endless references to Christianity, astrology, and Roman, Hellenic, and Norse mythologies—these are the tattoos, scars, finger- and footprints that lend a personalized feel to a musical trope that, whether through a latent respect for privacy or a general lack of personal experience, all too often resorts to the lowest common denominator of non-specific singer-songwriting.

Not that the members of Bloc Party are immune to generalizations; rather, their poetic tendencies and catchy arrangements manage to salvage the guitar-and-vox faux-sirens and dancehall scraps of “Ares”, making them seem succinct and artful rather than trite or vague. Ditto for “Mercury”’s cut-paste vox, backup brass, dejected horoscope refrain, and woebegone name-dropping of absent friends (like former LadyFuzz frontwoman Liz Neumayr).

Still, there will always be energetic clunkers like “Halo”, which jumps forward with a rousing drumbeat and guitar riff, only to fall back on one rough come-on of a chorus:

“Paralyse me, with your kiss / Wipe those dirty hands, on me / Maybe we’re looking for the same thing / Maybe you’re the one who will complete me.”

As they say, desperation is a stinky cologne; luckily for the listener, the anonymous, Axe-like reek of “Halo” is quickly exorcised by the airy requiem of “Biko”. Built on a foundation of piano, background atmospherics, and quiet vocals, “Biko” is the first of a series of intensely personal songs filled with subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Greek mythology, in this case comparing Okereke’s relationship with a dying loved one to the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.

“Trojan Horse” continues with a titular Hellenic metaphor-cum-double entendre, this time with Okereke reminiscing on the sexual habits of a stalled-out relationship. Musically, “Trojan Horse” is a familiar-sounding floor-filler: Lissack’s alternatively ringing and buzzing guitar, Moakes’ rumbling four-string, and Tong’s inhumanly accurate drumming comprise the bulk of the extremely danceable song. The shift between crooner sing-speaking and airy falsetto is a nice touch for the chorus, as is the vocal layering—impassioned back-ups under calm murmurings—of the outro, and it is these finer details that save Bloc Party’s newest offerings from faceless anonymity or overly-comfortable sameness. Slow growth is still growth, after all.

Next up, “Signs” revisits the subject matter and Orphic symbolism of “Biko”, wrapping casual nods to the myth of Hyacinth and to Odinic lore in quiet vocals and chiming glockenspiel. It’s an affecting song in and of itself, and an effective means of expanding upon previously-introduced material.

Not to be outdone by artsy song-cycles, video-single “One Month Off”, returns to Bloc Party’s more traditionally jaded guitar-rock shambling, throwing in some choppy vocal looping and fuzzy processing for added flavour. After the intermission of “One Month Off”, Okereke once again returns to the mythologies of “Biko” and “Signs” with the allusive infidelity and jealousy of “Zephyrus”. Armed with synth-style percussion, low-mixed vocals, full-on choral back-ups (courtesy of London’s Exmoor Singers), and droning keys, “Zephyrus”’s slow, westerly growth from pulsing drums to an arrestingly voluminous chorus—“And all you said in your quietest voice / Was ‘I needed you as much as they do’”—is notably different from standard Bloc Party arrangements, but a nice compliment to their guitar-rock-informed back catalogue.

Speaking of which, pre-album single “Talons” is yet another discotheque guitar-shredder, an echo-driven, head-bobbing nightmare of not-so-unexpected betrayal with an arguably Judas bent, including the inversion of the kiss as a sign of affection to an act of treachery. In a fashion far less dire, “Better Than Heaven” cues up even more synth effects and studio processing, layering blips, squibs, and pops with ringing guitar sustain and bombastic percussion while its heated lyrics command the listener to drop the textbooks and “use your hands for something else”. If “Talons” is a diagnosis of some sort of romantic wound, then “Better Than Heaven” is a forceful prescription for some sexual healing.

Digital album ender “Ion Square” kicks off with choppy piano and steady bass overtop hazy ‘spherics, slowly introducing percussion and guitar as Okereke reminisces on love and happiness, rejoicing in the quiet of domesticity as a reward for—and seeming relief from—the tumult and excitement of early courtship. There’s an undeniably specific tenderness to it, be it the chorus bitten from E.E. Cummings, the nighttime observations of a sleeping lover, or the pronounced crassness of Okereke “loving my mind / when I’m fucking you”, to the point where even the absence of a name cannot remove the certainty that “Ion Square” is meant for one very singular person.

As a bonus to the iTunes holdouts, the U.S. physical release of Intimacy includes three extra tracks. First up, “Letter to My Son”, leads off with a mated acoustic and electronic guitar riff that sounds damnably like a cut from Del Amitri circa 1986. Okereke and Lissack’s jangled rings and bright sustain come across as a loving homage to the British guitar rockers of yesteryear, while the hedonistic “trouble we can both cause / behind a bedroom door or on a kitchen floor” forms the perfect counterpoint to the far more serious (and similarly sung-of) matter of unplanned pregnancy and absentee parenting.

Second up, disco-riffic dance track “Your Visits are Getting Shorter” waxes melodramatic over a failing relationship, its synth melodies, digitized beats, and sample-heavy vocals playing host to a fist-raising dance party on Romance’s still-warm grave. Similarly, physical album ender “Flux” rises from silence like a prime DJ cut, throwing out its rousing, room-shaking rhythms and echoing sing-along vocals with reckless abandon. Remarkably, “Flux”’s sonic sugar-coating hides a densely personal core, as evidenced in impassioned lines like “When you shouted at me / I saw my father in the second grade / concerned and kind / but unable to reach me”. The nice thing about layers is there’s something for everyone, eh?

As an album, Intimacy more than lives up to its name—its acknowledgment of the symbiotic joy and pain inherent to physical and emotional closeness is refreshing in its maturity, clinical in its precision, and undeniably artful in its presentation. While Bloc Party’s pretenses are many, I for one find it increasingly difficult to deny the honesty, talent, and indefatigable energy behind them. Though at times overloaded with studio clutter and all-but-inaccessible to poetic ascetics, Intimacy is nevertheless an accomplished album, and one that eagerly welcomes repeated listening. So dig in, and keep your lyric sheet handy.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (December 16th, 2008)

Tags: audio, review, bloc party, intimacy, wichita records