Consecutively reinventing themselves with every new release, Bloc Party, the British-indie rock band has been under scrutiny from a substantial amount of their fan base ever since their critically acclaimed, Generation-Y album “Silent Alarm” (2005) to which some would argue is the defining record the group never improved upon. I’d dispute differently, however, as their third studio album “Intimacy” (2008), an adventurous, high-strung electropunk outing, is just as essential in defining the band, and to a marginally smaller extent their sophomore album, 2007’s “A Weekend in the City.” Their latest fifth album titled “Hymns” is another departure from their previous sound that yet again further distances itself from their original post-punk, Joy Division-inspired roots and is more evocative of a dream-pop album from the XX. Also worth mentioning is that this is Bloc Party’s first new album under its new line-up after bassist Gordon Moakes and drummer Matt Tong left the group due to creative differences with lead vocalist Kele Okereke.
Okereke, who was raised in Essex by his Catholic Nigerian parents, but does not claim to follow organized religion, has stated that “Hymns” is an exploration of all the things he holds sacred in his life including, but not limited to “nature, water, light, stars, the moon, as well as the joys of sex and intimacy.” The album’s first track and single, “The Love Within”, which initially garnered a backlash due to its “Wah-Wah” synth noises that elicit unwanted laughter, is an otherwise satisfactory upbeat dance track elevated by Kele’s vocals that pay homage to songs of the past by opening up with the line “Lord, give me grace and dancing feet, As I conquer all anxiety.” The track promotes real, authentic love over copious amounts of drug use. Also notable is the single “Virtue,” which is easily the album’s best track where Okereke describes resisting the urge to cheat against his partners trusting eye, knowing it will steer him backwards to a place of self-destruction he once thought he’d conquered, chanting “This path will lead us back to ruin. For all of my virtue, why can I not hold the truth?” The last single, “The Good News” is a uninspired country twang guitar led anthem that disrupts the flow of the album, feeling out of place and without context. Easily the worst song on “Hymns,” the painfully generic, blunder of a track would fit better as backing music for an off-road Jeep Wrangler advertisement.
Other album highlights include “Exes” and “Only He Can Heal Me.” In the former, Okereke attempts to make amends to past lovers he left behind illuminating how much they really meant to him. While the song is utterly fantastic, the studio recording leaves much to be desired compared to an earlier acoustic live demo version performed months back on “Triple J” radio station that’s much more downbeat and melancholic. I highly recommend listening to that version. The latter track is one of sexual deliverance where Okereke alludes to his partner as some sort of restorative Christ figure. Additionally, “Different Drugs”, a cinematic portrayal of DJ culture that veers close to trip hop territory becomes highly danceable in its final minute, as well as “Into The Earth,” which carries a light and airy Caribbean vibe. Some tracks however, don’t land as gracefully such as “Fortress,” which can only be described as soppy, Frank Ocean-esque music with rather unsubtle, corny lyrics. “Living Lux” is also an underwhelming closing track compared to previous album enders like “Silent Alarm’s” finishing track, “Compliments.”
It’s hard to deem “Hymns” anything other than serviceable. While I applaud the group for continuing to experiment, not repeat themselves, and not being afraid to “merge on the freeway.” Without Bloc Party’s trademark neurotic urgency featured in songs like “Positive Tension,” “Flux,” and “One Month Off,” the album, for the most part, feels like it’s just going through the motions. And for a record that’s supposedly trying to reach some sort of ambient spiritual epiphany, none of the tracks quite match the revelatory emotional heights of a beautiful, moving song like “Signs.” Gone is the romantic angst and global politics that so prominently characterized the group’s first three records. Also eradicated is any trace of the post-punk elements that influenced the group up until now. This is Bloc Party’s first album that doesn’t fill me with a sense of tenterhooks paranoia, which ironically, is something I crave when listening to the band. Perhaps Okereke, who is now at the age of thirty-four, is beginning to mellow out. The man is an artist in my eyes, a gifted vocalist, and I’m just as big a fan of his solo house music projects such as “The Boxer” (2010) and “Trick” (2014). I trust any direction he wants to take Bloc Party, as it is his band. I’m a supporter of his wish to be progressive and never do the same thing twice. Returning back to the “Silent Alarm” era would be a mistake. Still, it’s hard not to get the feeling that with “Hymns,” the group is grasping at straws artistically. Their last rebound album, “Four” (2012) gave the impression that four different opposing bandmates were butting-heads over an overall direction to go creatively. While this album has cut down that amount of compromise, this in turn has churned out an even less interesting record. “Hymns” is one of Bloc Party’s lesser efforts, and alongside “Four,” it will likely get fewer frequent plays from me, but it’s moderately enjoyable and worth checking out. Just don’t let it serve as an introduction to the band.
Rob Gabe is a fifth-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.