Friday, August 29, 2008

Too Much Information?

Bloc Party - Intimacy

In this weekend’s Observer, Kitty Empire suggested that ‘Intimacy’ might eventually be remembered as the classic Bloc Party album. For me, this is proof that Bloc Party are being too readily indulged. I do not share Kitty’s confidence that this album will stand up to much critical scrutiny even in five years’ time. I fear Bloc Party might actually be destined to be a prime example of the short shelf life of so many British bands once rashly trumpeted as original creative masters.

Production duties are split between Paul Epworth, who produced the group’s excellent debut ‘Silent Alarm’ and Jacknife Lee, producer of the flawed but interesting ‘A Weekend In The City’. What we essentially get here is a concise juxtaposition of the concerns of both previous Bloc Party albums. Lee here once again overcooks his tracks to within an inch of their lives, whilst Epworth aims at a more polished version of that potent punch the band packed at the earliest stage of their development. On the worst moments of ‘Intimacy’, the band is simply trying far too hard. Even at its best, this is often merely another covering of ground this band has already traversed.

For the most part, this is an atavistic and cold album that doesn’t match the thematic preoccupations implied by its title. The opening ‘Ares’ is clearly intended as a bold statement of intent – some kind of declaration of the group’s radical experimentalism. For all its transparent intentions though, ‘Ares’ is a very inauspicious start. Unfortunately, it sounds exactly like The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Setting Sun’, a record released more than ten years ago. The band throws every gimmicky noise and production trick at the wall here in the hope that something will stick. Okereke’s shouty vocals help render the track unbearable, and it’s hard to believe that he’s thrown the line ‘get fucked up!’ into the song, even if it is ironic rather than sincere. ‘Mercury’ tries similar tactics with more coherence – the brass sounds are menacing and confrontational and that repeated processed vocal successfully straddles that fine line between insistent and irritating. Some of the more conventional moments, with a taut and precise sound (‘One Month Off’ particularly) end up sounding worryingly close to Green Day.

Many critics have found Kele Okereke’s romanticism clunky and ham-fisted, but I initially welcomed the prospect of ‘Intimacy’ moving to the personal after the less than incisive socio-political analysis of its predecessor. The warmth and candour of tracks such as ‘I Still Remember’ and ‘Kreuzberg’ from that album made more impact on me than the ugly rantings of ‘Uniform’ or ‘Hunting for Witches’. Yet Okereke’s preoccupation with sex here comes across as rather dislikeable and self-pitying. ‘I’m sleeping with people I don’t even like!’ he bellows triumphantly on ‘Mercury’. Well, why are you doing that exactly? The psychological aspects of sex and sexuality can be fascinating and important subject matter (as the films ‘Shortbus’ and ‘Lust, Caution’ have recently proved) but statements without analysis lack depth or interest and ultimately come across as shallow.

There’s obviously genuine feeling here – some of the lyrics seem to be focussed on bringing a lost lover back from the dead - but all this soul-bearing often doesn’t seem to get beyond basic cliché (‘the world isn’t kind to little things’). Sometimes it’s just completely cringe-inducing. The lyrics that open ‘Trojan Horse’ - ‘you used to take your watch off, before we made love, you didn’t want to share our time with anyone’ - don’t even make much sense. You could reasonably remove a watch so as not to be aware of time during sex but how exactly does wearing one mean you’re sharing that time with someone else? It’s all rather perplexing and the image of a Jarvis Cocker-esque voyeur hiding in the cupboard monitoring the duration of Okereke’s erotic activities is not a particularly pleasant one.

For me, the album works best when the group grasps for a musical delicacy to correspond to these windows into Okereke’s private sphere. ‘Ion Square’ is a brooding, minimal, slow-building epic that at least has some sense of mood and atmosphere. ‘Signs’, with its pulsating heartbeat and lightly percussive backbone, represents a genuine and positive diversion from the band’s back catalogue but its determinedly linear and repetitive structure prevents it from ever really taking flight. I need to listen to the bizarre electro-choral beast that is ‘Zephryus’ a bit more – I can’t decide whether it’s the boldest track here or an example of insufferable pretension. The choir is certainly not as incorporated as effortlessly as Bjork managed with ‘Vespertine’ (incidentally, a record so often unfairly dismissed as cold and uninvolving – but so much more intimate and moving than this). One thing I certainly admire about this track is the restraint the group exercise. Whereas the dark, mysterious atmosphere of ‘Better Than Heaven’ is destroyed by an all-too-predictable explosion of drums and guitars, ‘Zephyrus’ maintains its dreamlike but detached poise. ‘Biko’, so incongruously titled as to be offensive and nothing to do with the Peter Gabriel song, is sweet-sounding and vulnerable, although the entry of programmed beats quickly and irrevocably punctures its serenity.

Whether they are attempting to craft something edgy or affecting, the Bloc Party sound could now benefit from a brighter, more naturalistic treatment. The drums are transformed into a dull thud with every trace of natural resonance removed – whilst the additional effects so often seem tacked on as an afterthought to give the impression that the group are either innovative or uniquely open-minded. The band and their producers are clearly thinking very hard about drama and atmosphere but when the tracks are so over-produced, it’s hard to find the original feeling or spark. Ultimately, there is nothing here that the band didn’t capture with greater power and clarity on ‘Silent Alarm’, mostly doing so without resorting to trickery.

Unfortunately, with his voice more exposed here than on previous Bloc Party albums, Okereke is revealed as a dull and imaginative vocalist, perhaps a bigger problem than the poor quality of his poetry. When he’s not plagiarising from The Cure, he’s repeating his own tricks. Many of the melodies here sound regurgitated from previous Bloc Party songs (sometimes the music follows his lead – ‘One Month Off’ repeats the dual guitar assault of ‘Helicopter’). His range is limited and his sense of timing and phrasing curiously lacking. Sometimes he stretches syllables to fit the melodies in a way that sounds unmusical and forced. Too often, his lyrics simply do not scan. Whilst no-one will approach a Bloc Party record in search of diva acrobatics, they might reasonably expect some form of expression to match the album’s clearly stated theme and certainly something more than the same notes endlessly reformulated.

Some reviews will no doubt herald the band’s toughening of their sound, and the addition of new elements from the worlds of electronica and even hip hop. Beneath the surface gimmicks though, ‘Intimacy’ really presents a band that has run out of ideas. Even the most energetic, aggressive moments here somehow sound sterile. ‘Halo’ should hit all the right buttons with its attacking barrage of guitars but it comes across as more calculated than spontaneous. Perhaps ‘Signs’ and ‘Zephyrus’ offer some positive signals for the group but they clearly ought to have taken more time to develop these new paths. Okereke often seems articulate and persuasive in interview but currently seems incapable of reproducing that intelligence on disc. This is also a remarkably one-dimensional view of human intimacy – one which emphasises intensity, trauma and dependency rather than fun and mutual fulfilment. Perhaps that's another reason why, for all its grand designs, 'Intimacy' is something of an anticlimactic letdown.

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