This is an album about love, personal intimacy and sexuality, but also about race and ethnicity, immigration, politics and the wider misuse of power.
2042, the new album from Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke, is named for the year at which at which US census data predicts that ethnic minorities will become the majority. And where Fatherland, his third album, explored his becoming a parent via folk-infused melodies, 2042, as the title makes clear, is an altogether more strident, politically charged and generically diverse album and is, largely although not entirely, successful because of it. This is an album about love, personal intimacy and sexuality, but also about race and ethnicity, immigration, politics and the wider misuse of power.
“Jungle Bunny” kicks the album off with what is, by now, part of Kele’s most recognizable tropes: jittery drum beats, guitar licks that reference classic British post-punk and that voice that switches between high and low notes, rapping, speaking and singing. It’s arresting, the opening lyrics breathlessly placing the song in a wider context: “Like cocoa from the Congo/ Like gold from Senegal/ Better get yourself together/ Better get your money up.” Not only is this album political, it’s fiercely focused on reporting an experience of Britain that is not that of Pulp or Blur and their analogues, whose own musical heritages Kele and Bloc Party reference so often. This is an album about Black England, a country of immigrants, refugees and, crucially, a non-White experience of White English discourses. Equally, just as Kele sings that his listeners should “quit it with the coonery/ The japes and the tomfoolery/ Shucking and jiving in your video,” he continues, with a comment directed straight at Kanye “Trump” West, “You go home to your home in Calabasas/ With your wife and your kids/ Safe in your knowledge on a gated street/ Where life is sweet/ But no-one looks like you.”
Puzzlingly, whatever energy gathered by the album’s first song is dissipated by the next, “Past Lives (Interlude),” a short and sweet guitar-and-vibes interregnum that offers, perhaps, a chance to prepare before one of the album’s most justifiably strident tracks, the growling grind of “Let England Burn.” Here Kele mixes reporting his own experience of life in England with the outrage at the Grenfell Tower fire, singing that “While England burns/ Let England burn/ While London burns/ As Grenfell burns, can we start again?.” Equally striking is the stadium-ready anthem “Between Me and My Maker” which approaches Big Country or Simple Minds-levels of clap-along, mid-tempo glory while Kele sings, “Into the light is where I’ll go/ My body is not my soul/ When I die my spirit rise/ Upon a cloud of gold.”
“Ceiling Games” is one of the album’s more personally intimate songs and is as loving and skillful as anything he’s written previously. It’s a summery ballad with a guitar straight from Everything But The Girl and a gorgeous respite from some of the haranguing which occurs elsewhere. Similarly lovely is “Catching Feelings,” a late-night slow jam about commitment phobia, featuring a sultry bass guitar, deliciously biting lyrics and a chorus that echoes a particularly British form of funk. But, as with “Jungle Bunny”, both of these songs are followed by interludes with the second of these, “A Day of National Shame (Interlude),” playing out British MP David Lammy’s furious indictment of then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation – West Indian migrants who’d emigrated to the UK after the Second World War and who were, in 2018, wrongly detained, threatened and, in a large number of cases, wrongly deported.
Throughout his solo albums, Kele has always made clear that the personal is always political and yet this conceptual principle is also the album’s weakness. It’s the personal songs, the small moments of intimacy, that are the most effective and successful as songs while the larger gestures, the high political concepts seem both blunt and ill-considered. Yet, it’s also important to take 2042 at face value and understand it in its own terms. The constant shuttling between genres, the shifts in tone from song to song across the album’s 16 tracks, the dissipation of listening pleasure with the pauses enforced by the album’s interludes, must all be deliberate decisions. It might be instead that the breadth of musical skill on display in Kele’s compositions are perfectly suited for a more omnivorous, or more distracted, listener and, in the end, it remains vital that the wider social concerns he sings about continue to be recorded and circulated, lest they be forgotten by the next media moment, overwritten and discarded from popular imagination.