Okereke’s decision to work with a more mature sound is hard won.
Usually, when a rock frontman goes solo, you can rely on a standard exploration of the singer-songwriter paradigm. They’ll release a set of stripped down songs showing off their more serious chops in an effort to distance themselves from the sometimes more juvenile material they’ve been heretofore known for. For Kele Okereke, Bloc Party’s leading man, that transition has come a little late. His last two releases, 2010’s The Boxer and 2014’s Trick, both experimented with an aggressive strain of the four to the floor dance music that had been the underpinning of his band’s Gang of Four-indebted post-punk.
Fatherland, his first album released using his full name, is a big departure from that sound. This raw, naked set of songs is a familiar evolution in the world of rock music, only here Okereke’s decision to work with a more mature sound is hard won. Rather than a young man wearing his influences like an overgrown coat, he’s wisely waited for his skills and life experiences to catch up to his ambitions. He’s clearly inspired by the many artists he’s name-checked in interviews promoting the album, a disparate bunch from Joni Mitchell to Al Green, but this is also distinctly himself. The result is a pleasing album that might be a snoozefest for longtime fans wanting a shimmer of Silent Alarm but a bittersweet surprise for anyone with a more open mind.
Okereke has been quoted as saying he wants the album to be a time capsule for his newborn daughter, something she can listen to years down the road to have an understanding of who her fathers were just before her birth. As such, the album takes on a cinematic quality, feeling like an assemblage of vignettes from early thirtysomething life. These snapshots of life, largely odes to the ups and downs of romance, are framed with a sobering kind of burgeoning wisdom, with Okereke’s lyricism smartly capturing the world with a newfound weariness. Even before his solo work, there’s been a bellyfire fueling the songs he sings, tackling difficult political subjects with the righteous indignation of a young man not wanting to waste his platform. But, here, each track feels more insular. The most effective songs all play like cut scenes from a film on making peace with your 20s so you can settle down and do the work of fatherhood.
“Savannah” comes near the end of the LP, but it could easily be the opening scene, a pre-credits framing device of Okereke singing to his daughter as preamble for the tales he’s about to present. That storybook quality is present in the dulcet instrumentation and workmanlike production. The quavering nature of Okereke’s vocals provides a texture against the lush strings and plaintive piano, both here and on “Portrait,” one of many songs directed at a former lover. He’s always been a sharp lyricist, but the benefit of hindsight and maturation have made his musings all the more clever. “I offered my mind but you wanted my body,” he sings, “A trifling diversion to swallow your time / Is that what they teach you in St Martin’s College?”
Duet “Grounds For Resentment” covers similar ground, documenting the fall out/make up dynamic between two lovers, but it benefits from the welcome contrast of Olly Alexander’s voice and the track’s relative sweetness. “Do U Right,” another stand out, is a fascinating turn for Okereke, coming off like Mark Ronson producing for Tracy Chapman. This brassy tune shouldn’t work quite as well as it does, but moreso than anything else on the record, it leverages his uniquely sullen swagger.
There are a few ill-conceived duds here, like old timey piano slapper “Capers” or the melodramatic “Road To Ibadan,” but the album is smart to close out on a pair of rueful jams that best exemplify the wounded yet hopeful nostalgia at Fatherland’s core. “The New Year Party” is a sluggish, simply told account of a New Year’s Eve spent with friends each dragging themselves kicking and screaming into another year on this Earth. It’s got all the hungover solipsism that comes second nature once the big three-oh hits, and it rolls into “Royal Reign,” an epic, near Britpop ballad elongating the dying rasps of a relationship into an elastic, operatic moment of catharsis. When Okereke’s daughter is finally old enough to hear and comprehend this album, her father will probably have evolved even further along this path, but it’ll be interesting to see where he goes next.