By Allyson Bills
London’s Bloc Party are back and rejuvenated after their 2013 hiatus as a band, and they wasted no time recording their fifth album, HYMNS released on the Infectious Music label. During this hiatus, Bloc Party added two new members to join bandleader Kele Okereke and multi-instrumentalist Russell Lisa: Justin Harris of Menomena and Louise Bartle, whom Okereke and Lisa discovered on YouTube. With these new members comes a different sound for Bloc Party: a looser, more dance-like sound than from their previous releases. Bloc Party has been slowly progressing toward a more dance-friendly sound since their 2005 acclaimed debut, Silent Alarm, while still maintaining their post-punk edge. However, HYMNS blows the rock out of the water and brings on the dance-big time.
The concept of HYMNS derived from a talk that Okereke attended in London that author Hanif Kureishi conducted about evangelical art and how it’s unfashionable in the larger society. HYMNS is not intended to be a religious album, per se, but one that expands the boundaries of the meaning the spirituality that universally appeals to the listener. There is a juxtaposition of the lyrics in the first track off HYMNS, “The Love Within.” The lyrics of “I’ve learned the way to pray like a missile growing towards me” can be perceived to be religious in nature; whereas later in “The Love Within,” I thought Okereke was referencing drugs when he sings, “The love within is moving upward // So don’t you want to get high?” With these lyrics, Okereke allows the listener to interpret their own meaning of the wider spirituality. The overall sound of “The Love Within” is more dance and electronic-oriented than we have seen in the past from Bloc Party. The bursts of guitar pedals add texture to the song without overcompensating for the other instruments.
The only obvious religious track off HYMNS comes from “Only He Can Heal Me.” I’m not a particularly religious person, so I was put off by the overall concept of the song having God being the answer to all one’s problems. This notion is obvious throughout the song, especially the line when Okereke sings, “Lay me down where there’s cleansing // Where the tall grass grows and grows // Let me wait until my savior comes home.” On the other hand, “Only He Can Heal Me” is a hit in the making with the dark, gloomy pianos in the beginning and the backing vocals resembling a choir. Lyrically, I can’t imagine that “Only He Can Heal Me” would appeal to all Bloc Party fans due to its overt religious nature. However, you have to give credit to Bloc Party for expanding their lyrical prowess.
“So Real” is a mellow dance number where Okereke channels his inner Twin Shadow with his brooding vocals about a lost love. The guitar solos nestled throughout “So Real” show the inner workings of Okereke’s mind. Sometimes the wrong love makes you codependent and left with a broken heart, and Okereke paints his sorrows in the lyrics of “What am I supposed to do // When the only good thing about me was you?” “So Real” will definitely give you the feels, especially when you have those sad moments alone in your car.
Losing yourself and finding God again is the main concept in “The Good News.” If you aren’t a fan of religious-in-nature lyrics, then you will want to pass this track because it is chockfull of them. It’s no more obvious in Okereke’s lyrics when he is lost and trying to find his way again: “I used to find my answers in the Gospels of Saint John // Now I find them at the bottom of this short glass.” I did my best to interpret this song in a way to be optimistic in life, but I felt the obviously religious lyrics were allowing such interpretation. Sound-wise, this track is the largest departure from Bloc Party’s signature dance-rock sound. There is twang that is heard in a majority of country songs; however, Bloc Party uses it minimally to not make “The Good News” sound like a country song.
If you want a tune to impress that special someone in the sheets, then you should look no further than “Fortress.” First comes the religious, next comes the overtly sexual! Trust me on this one, you will only want to sing Okereke’s lyrics of “If you are hungry // Devour your morsels // Cover my mouth.” This song is definitely NSFW (Not Safe For Work). This aurally light and airy track set to thumping bass is sure to get your pulse running. There is a hum throughout “Fortress” that is unnecessary and doesn’t compliment to the overall sound structure of the song, which is why I found it to be the oddest track off HYMNS.
The impact that Bartle has made during her short time as member of Bloc Party is astronomical. She adds an incredible amount of depth to the rhythm section, which was not as obvious in Bloc Party’s earlier years. Bartle’s impact is especially obvious in the beginning of “Different Drugs” with her solo set to guitar pedal effects. It really sets the tone for the rest of this track that leads into an excellent instrumental build-up toward the end. Okereke explores a past sudden love in “Different Drugs”: “It started as a joyride // Just a way to let us steer // But now we’re running off the road because you are asleep at the wheel.” The quieter moments in “Different Drugs” really sets the other songs on HYMNS apart because it gives the listener the time to reflect on their past relationships.
“Into The Earth” is what I consider the “slow jam” for Bloc Party, with strong drums and relaxed guitars. This track seems to delve into the question of whether or not rock n’ roll matters on a wider scale. This is obvious in the line, “I don’t know what the future holds // But I hope we’ll face it together // Because rock n’ roll has got old.” “Into The Earth” is one of the best tracks off HYMNS with its distinguishable hooks; however, the only reservation that I have about the song title that is “Into The Earth.” There is never a “the” in front of a proper noun that is Earth.
Another gem off HYMNS is “My True Name.” When I initially listened to the introduction for this track, I thought the guitar parts sound like those from 311’s “Amber.” For those worried that Bloc Party is emulating 311, you will be happy to know that the samples throughout the track create the feeling of floating in space. The eerie sound of “My True Name” compliments the lyrics, especially “Into your eye-lights // Keep me in your sights // I asked about and how to get into your life.” Desperation and devotion are powerful words, and Bloc Party made this song sound humongous. Bloc Party is also appealing to the clubbing crowd in HYMNS with “Virtue.” This is an upbeat dance number that will get you moving. Don’t let the fun-sounding song fool you: this song is about temptation and trying to figure out one’s truths. Okereke’s lyrics of “Words can cleanse and purify // Order down a pack of lies” cuts right down to the seam. There is also a shift change in the 3:15 mark that reminds me of New Order. With its wavering pedal effects and falsetto vocals from Okereke, “Virtue” is the recipe for a Bloc Party classic.
In “Exes,” Okereke pens an open letter to all of his past flames in this dark, cutting track. I interpreted “Exes” as a song about letting someone down, but wishing them well and moving on. This is especially obvious with the line, “Everything that I was proud of // With everything that I’ve done wrong.” This is one of the most lyrically dark songs off HYMNS, but it also creates optimism at the end with the backing vocals of “try.” Even the pedals sound like whistles to emulate optimism and the power to move forward. The weakest link off HYMNS is the final track, “Living Lux.” Bloc Party is a little too ambitious to weave their electronic influences into “Living Lux.” The result of this over-compensation is a stagnant track with the same beat that doesn’t have a bridge or build on the chorus. Even the lyrics of “Living Lux” are not up to par with the rest of HYMNS. I actually found them corny. I mean, there’s no way that you can take “Living Lux” seriously after hearing Okereke sing, “I had connections // But you had style // Such a lethal combination.” I’m not sure why Bloc Party chose to end HYMNS with this abysmal number, because it leaves an icky taste in your mouth from a otherwise solid album.
If there is one thing that I learned from HYMNS is that you can never categorize Bloc Party. What makes Bloc Party the awesome band is their ability to derive various musical influences and make it their own. The album as a whole, with the exception of “Living Lux,” is very sporadic, but all the songs complement each other at the same time. It’s very rare that a band can appeal to their entire fan base and not lose sense of the band’s identity at the same time; and Bloc Party has this gift. The band chemistry on HYMNS is evident in their looser approach to songwriting. HYMNS is the album that Bloc Party was meant to create. Hopefully, Bloc Party will stay together again in years to come.