A Weekend in the City
loc Party have trotted out the usual “taller, wider, deeper” clichés that follow a critically salivated-upon debut, but what do those words actually mean? The potential pitfalls of sophomore albums are familiar: repeat the formula of your first record and face criticism for not developing, change too much and lose the fans who loved your sound. Rock bands, especially those tagged as being “important” for one reason or another, can slip all too easily into the latter.
On first contact, A Weekend in the City seems to have found a perfect middle ground. It still feels like Bloc Party, but the ideas and sonic palette on display in the first half of the record are more diverse and thrilling than those of Silent Alarm. At times it comes across more like techno than the work of a rock band—heavily processed and synthesised textures; beats and voices augmenting and often replacing the needle-sharp guitars and breakneck, multi-directional tempos we’re used to.
These eager experiments can seem a little forced though. “Hunting for Witches” suggests Bloc Party are enamoured of dubstep and microhouse but perhaps lack the sophistication to interpolate those styles fully into the fabric of their own music, so they simply graft an intro and outro of cut-up radio noise onto an otherwise standard (if good) Bloc Party song. Lead single “The Prayer” ramrods fragmented and textural vocal chants into a bizarre arrangement, but its anthemic feel is manufactured through repetition rather than surging melodic or chord sequences.
The entire sound of the album, as you would expect from Snow Patrol, Kasabian, and U2 producer Jacknife Lee, is problematic. Consider Matt Tong’s drums, so extraordinarily mushed-up that Jacknife may as well have programmed a drum machine and sacked the poor guy from studio work. “Where Is Home?” starts as if he’s playing in the next room (rather than on a distant, digital planet), but he’s soon subsumed by another overambitious arrangement. Equally, the constant compression, stereo-panning, and multi-tracking of Kele’s vocals (devices repeated throughout not only this album but also Silent Alarm) now seem like obvious distraction techniques rather than exciting sonic touches. By album closer “SRXT” his desiccated larynx threatens to destroy an otherwise pretty melody, a demolition job completed by the witlessly muffled and repetitive climax.
Many of the lyrics suffer the same problem: rich in ideas, overblown in execution. Weekend has been trumpeted as a concept album about London and the malaise at the heart of Britain in the Blair era, but much of the commentary comes across as ennui or hapless preaching. “On” paints flirtation with cocaine like an illicit (homo)sexual encounter, replete with descriptions of pub toilets, loosened tongues, and vampires. Suede covered the same territory over a decade ago without the clunky metaphors and strained socio-political commentary. In the context of an album often seething with racial, sexual, and political tumult, hangover romances like “Sunday” seem trite and adolescent.
The second half of the album falls into a malaise as tempos slow and arrangements become more orthodox, placing Bloc Party closer to Coldplay than one would have thought possible two years ago. “Where Is Home?” jars and excites musically and lyrically (“In every headline we are reminded…I want to stamp on the face of every young policeman”), but “I Still Remember” is, ironically, forgettable. After the beautiful twists of “So Here We Are” and “This Modern Love,” much of Bloc Party’s second record seems to have regressed, and while the first half successfully disguises this with sometimes over-elaborate sonic garnish, the ideas eventually dry up and the songs are left wanting.
Let’s go back and think about the first words on the album: “I am trying to be heroic in an age of modernity.” The age of modernity as I understood it is long since past; Bloc Party seem to be trying too hard to be heroes. A Weekend in the City is over-serious, over-complicated, over-produced, and lacking in real bravery and compassion. In many ways it does perfectly express the malaise at the heart of Blair’s Britain. The problem is that it often does so through embodiment, not satire. Taller, wider, deeper—but not better.