Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City
Weekend In The City is, more or less, a concept album about modern London, a collage of Daily Mail-reading xenophobes, drugs, and disaffected teens. It is ambitious, one of the smartest ideas for a rock album in many moons, but the execution left rather too much to be desired. Despite repeated listens, I can’t keep the last four or five tracks straight in my head. Possibly Jackknife Lee is to blame for the muddy sound, but the classicist predictability of “I Still Remember” draws away from the crowded urban landscape of the album’s best songs and Bloc Party’s talent for ecstatic dance.
This Playing God assembles bonus tracks from the four or five “Special Editions” and some choice non-album material to reframe Kele Okerere’s portrait of the city as seen by a young man, guided by the belief that the best songs are the most personal, even when their content is couched in vague lyrics.
01. Where is Home?
“Where is Home?” does the same job as “Song for Clay” (the riffs are also kissing cousins). But rather than second-hand, number-than-thou generalizations about champagne and sucking face, Okerere sings, “The Second Generation’s blues / Are points of view not listened to,” potently inhabiting his own skin. His homeless rage only grows, engulfing the immigrant parents who cannot prepare their children for their own difference. Nothing else on A Weekend can match the etched specificity of “Clinging to her bible and her scapula / And her memory of the way things were.”
02. Hunting for Witches
The blast of channel-hopping sound that opens “Witches” is a cliché to be sure, but a good one, a rhetorical gesture that epitomizes media-suffused anomie even as it circles back to encompass itself. “Witches” is the angriest track on A Weekend, and Okerere’s biggest leap in his roleplaying lyrics, (“I was an ordinary man with ordinary desires” is definitely not his greatest lyrical creation) but he is backed by a guitar line that cracks like a whip and the best bassline that made the album. When the time comes to appraise Bloc Party’s legacy, as with U2, the bassist will be their most reliable bid, guitar science and gay-icon drummers notwithstanding.
03. The Present
“The Present” suffers from a strange squaring off of the beat in its climax, but is still the best not-quite-ballad they’ve written since “This Modern Love,” blowing “Waiting for the 7.18” out of the water and thus marking the first departure from the original album. It takes little imagination to hear Okerere’s protagonist as one of the millions of young working stiffs, some of them Bloc Party fans, that failed to make an appearance in the high drama of A Weekend. “With heavy hand and absent mind / Did I blow your candle out? / With short words and a lack of time / Am I ever on your mind? / Was I cruel and never there? / Nothing to rely on?” And the stakes are so despairingly small: Okerere isn’t going to leave, marry you, give you a kiss, or apologize, but last night he was so close to just calling you up. Which is such an urban kind of love.
The love, if that’s what it was, is already on the rocks by the time it gets to the mall—Kele is distancing himself from his subject again here, and he doesn’t always come off as a plausible mall clone—too soft a target his X-ray vision, which surely has more to reveal than “The TV taught me how to sulk and love nothing”; better is the sneaky appropriation of Kurt Cobain’s infamous imperative—“Entertain us!”
The song comes fully into its own when it grindingly shifts gears at the midpoint and Okerere slides more plausibly into his own skin as he sings “I’ve gotten so good at lying to myself… all my pain and honor are used up.”
“Secrets” is one of the slick pop moments that was expurgated from the album proper, and gestures to an optimism otherwise absent, especially when it bites the guitars from “This Modern Love.” The “Whoo-eee-ooo” chorus line and the clanging guitars suggest that all the nobs that compared them to Gang of Four without paying attention to either weren’t entirely wrong, just annoying. The chorus is a wetter, poppier kiss than anything the Four ever spat out.
“On” could even be an explanation, a backstory, for the paranoia of “Secrets,” though that might be stretching the concept. “On” is the most accomplished song on A Weekend, a drug song free of both moralizing and cheap seduction, relying neither on a toothy guitar riff nor multiple themes, but only a growing sense of disjointed weightlessness, eyes, tongue, and feet moving in independent harmony, abetted by the way the ground abruptly disappears at the chorus. Okerere is at his most personal, reveling in the expiring triumph of being “hopeful and stutter free.”
07. Selfish Son
Bloc Party don’t do sinister much, and the effort shows in the grim verse of “Selfish Son.” Okerere whispers ominously, getting good and cozy with the mic, making a bid for Ice Queen territory: “This city is raised on borrowed time / Taxi meters, police sirens.” The xylophone that splits the song open to the halogen street light is a worthy successor to U2’s “I Will Follow,” and the song is graced with one of Matt Tong’s most sensual, underplayed breaks, from a man who typically sounds like an expertly manipulated Casio drum machine. Okerere sounds trapped in his own skull: “Typical me, typical libra, the grass is always green,” but the chorus revels in an acute self-awareness. As he repeats it, “I can be cruel… to you” becomes an anthem of some sort of liberation.
08. The Prayer
This song was chosen as the single, one assumes, because of the catchy, twitchy, but no less singable chorus; but it is the tribal stomp and shout of the introduction and verse that keeps it here. Okerere is an adept pop writer in the rock vein, but once in a while he veers off, as if accidentally and usually briefly, into territory that sounds distinctly Other: whooping choruses, elliptic melodies, fraught harmonies. Disconcerting and unsettling, they are without fail amongst Bloc Party’s best moments.
09. Version 2.0
Okerere’s lyrically vague treatment of urban tribalism and a chorus that never quite catches on are more than compensated for by a proper nice bass passage, of the sort the band has all but dispensed with since Silent Alarm.
For all its mongrel dissidency, Weekend spends little energy on Okerere’s abiding affection for London. In the persistent gloom, you can lose sight of the fact that the luminous riffs illuminate an unmistakably post-millennial, urban dance of darkness and hangover-bright lights. But no suicide here, or hangover here just yet, only blissful drunkenness, a washing away of the sins.
Kele’s chosen incarnation is a peculiarly Second Generation parental superego, one that is perhaps even recognizably Nigerian, though we can all substitute our own particular bugaboos. But in a particularly sweet twist and belying the legless lyrics, “Rhododendron” must be Bloc Party’s best dance song since Alarm at least, with a naked honesty befitting Okerere’s coming-out album.
That the band claim to have written “Sunday” in five minutes only proves that the rest of the album was overthought. The immortalizing feeling of expansive defeat on a hungover Sunday in the park needs to be seen to be believed, but the next best thing is Okerere’s bleary-eyed, bed-headed lyrics: “If we get up now / We can catch the afternoon / Watch the Under 15s playing football in the park… We’re doing the best with what we’ve got.”