This third long-play effort from British band Bloc Party was released in Australia last Saturday, despite being released as a download over the Internet over two months ago. I have been a fan of the band since travelling to London last year and picking up their first and second albums, the critically acclaimed Silent Alarm and the less well received A Weekend in the City. This latest effort from the band seems to have garnered some fairly mixed reviews – not entirely unexpectedly given the fact that it does take their sound in a decidedly more electronic direction.
It’s probably fair to say that most people who do like Bloc Party like them for the band’s angular guitar lines and somewhat dance-oriented rhythm section. Kele Okereke’s vocals can be somewhat polarising, and in a lot of the band’s best cuts his voice is used more like an instrument than as the fulcrum of the music. Intimacy for me is an interesting record because the angular guitar lines, if not quite removed altogether, are not the focus of this record. Okereke’s vocals also take a bit more of centre-stage than on previous albums. To complicate things further, this is something of a concept album, focusing pretty squarely on sexuality, love and relationships. Ares opens the album in a fairly nerve-jangling matter, with spitting drums, buzzsaw guitars, and a call and response vocal performance from Okereke that clearly has been cut and spliced around quite a bit. It is followed by Mercury, the first single, which with its repetitive lyrics and drum and bass orientation, exemplifies the polarisation that Intimacy presents to the listener. It is very much a song of these times, as these lyrics indicate:
This is not the time, the time to start a new love
This is not the time, the time to sign a lease
Try not to worry about what’s forgotten
Try not to worry about what’s being missed
Scars on my shins, scars on my knuckles
Today I woke up in the basketball court
JohnJo’s in Sydney and he ain’t returning
I’m sitting in Soho trying to stay drunk
Squalling horns invade the track towards the end, and it is at this point that you realise that Mercury is Bloc Party’s answer to Radiohead’s The National Anthem. Next off the line is a straight ahead rocker, Halo, running along at a rate of knots that is almost difficult to follow. It is almost as if the band are making up for the lack of rock to follow by compacting it all into this single track. Biko is a gentle, touching ballad in which Okerekes’s vocal performance takes central stage, lamenting the passing of a cancer victim.
We then return to another stinging, distorted rock track, Trojan Horse – for my money one of the album’s weakest tracks. From there on in, though, things improve markedly. The gentle xylophones of Signs recall Sigur Ros, and Okereke’s vocal performance is right on the money. One Month Off is a shining example of what the band does best – jagged rock with some sharp, repetitive riffing and a catchy chorus. Zephyrus is an indicator of where the band might head next – a bold electronic masterpiece that features Okereke backed only by electronic beats and as the track progresses, a stunning choir.
Ninth track Talons had an interesting genesis in the context of this album – it was not part of the original electronic release and was evidently added into the physical album release last week. It is a good thing it was – as it is a great cut, and of all the tracks on Intimacy, this is the one that has “hit” stamped on it the most. It seems made for inclusion on a Bond soundtrack. It is followed by Better Than Heaven, a somewhat off-beat, part-electronic track that once again puts Okereke at the centre of the action. The album concludes with Ion Square, a track that slowly builds towards an upbeat, synthesised squall of noise, based in part on E. E. Cummings’ poem I Carry Your Heart With Me.
The consensus of the reviews of this album that I have read so far is that it is a middling album at best. On this score I have to disagree – Intimacy is one of those albums that manages somehow to be more than the sum of its parts. It experiments (Zephyrus, Ares), throws up some interestingly edgy lyrics from time to time (check Ion Square), and it also, through tracks like One Month Off and Talons, deliver some catchy rock. I am not sure that all of what the band tries works here, but it’s great to hear a band mixing it up a bit, taking risks and at the end of the day, pretty well much succeeding.