Bloc Party has turned out a well-paced, diverse, interesting and staggeringly beautiful record.
Bloc Party’s newest effort HYMNS is illuminating, dramatic, sexy and really damn good. With an almost entirely new band behind him save for guitarist Russell LLissack, Kele Okereke continues to dive head-first into dense electronic soundscapes to bolster the band’s alternative dance/indie rock vibe. Love it or hate it, this is what Bloc Party is now, and it seems the band has no intention of backsliding. Even the more stripped back indie rock songs it was most known for a decade ago have a more specific focus, with Okereke and Lissack having one foot planted in the blues and the other in gospel. And even with the integration of styles they’ve never embraced before, Bloc Party has turned out a well-paced, diverse, interesting and staggeringly beautiful record.
With song titles like “Only He Can Heal Me,” “The Good News,” and “My True Name,” it’s no surprise that an album called HYMNS is rife with religious imagery. What may be the group’s most impressive feat is that the band doesn’t discuss sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in a religious context; rather, it approaches Christian tropes with a subtle aesthetic touch. For instance, opening track, “The Love Within,” with electronically altered organ sounds and assimilated “Ode to Joy” vocal melody, invites listeners into the subtext without beating them over the heads with it. It’s not difficult to parse out, but it’s wrapped in an infectious chorus and a drumbeat that will make you want to get your ass up and dance.
While “Only He Can Heal Me” isn’t trying to fool anybody, the head-bobbing, foot-tapping beat leading a modern Gregorian chant is a brilliant touch. It offsets the literal nature of the lyrics by using a ninth-century form of worship in conjunction with indie rock ‘n’ roll and dance music. This juxtaposition may be one of the most interesting pieces of modern music in recent memory. The music remains fairly constant throughout, but it’s Okereke’s dreamlike vocals that make this song one to play on repeat. When the chorus engulfs the tune, it’s tough not to consider this track a highlight of the band’s entire catalogue.
HYMNS reaches maximum sexiness with “Fortress.” There’s nothing prayerful or repentant about this one; the velvet-thick electronics set to a light beat and a sense of ethereal bliss continues the worshipful thread. It’s a gorgeous song that gets a little sweaty and sticky. Okereke gets raw and personal here, committing truth to sound waves. And to continue with its religious paradigm, what is boasted of the most? Truth.
The album’s ends with its strongest tracks. “My True Name” not only features a simple, nearly perfect example of indie inspired guitar riffage, but it’s got reggae-level smoothness in the spare drumbeat and the eerie, beautiful background electronics that mimic an inspirational choir. “Virtue” may be the most traditional indie rock tune on the album, but it’s not a mere glimpse into the past. The keyboards once again give off the breathy whine of a church’s organ and the bass line has some serious funk wafting from it while Okereke sings “This path will lead us back/ Will lead us back to ruin/ With all of my virtue why can I not hold the truth?” Maybe he’s concerned about musical regression in the album’s most indie-ish tune, maybe he’s discussing a failed relationship, maybe he’s discussing a loss of faith—maybe it’s all of the above. What it is for sure is a triumph of nuanced, multi-layered composition that exemplifies the whole album in one four-minute track.
Finally, it’s “Living Lux.” A mixture of keys, electronics and vocals, its simplicity makes for the most dramatic and beautiful arrangement on the album. It’s joyful and heartrending all at once, a perfect ending to an album steeped in imagery and complexity. And, because it’s last in line, it leaves an impression so strong that it makes the songs before it seem even better than they already were. And considering lux is a unit of illumination, the song does its job two-fold—it sheds new light on what’s come before, and it allows listeners to walk away from a religion-laced album of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with a new perspective on the whole enterprise.
I said it before. HYMNS is illuminating. And despite those who feel Bloc Party’s ever-shifting focus may not produce the best results, it’s a tremendous addition to the band’s excellent catalog as well as any music fan’s record collection.