By Tim Letteney
Bloc Party is back with their third studio release, Intimacy. The boys have provided us with a confusion grenade of experimental electronic song writing, ambient ballads about loss, and the straight forward chug of the Bloc Party sound we are all used to. The scattered tone of the record suggests a band in flux. They have taken the sonic lessons they have learned from their previous releases, Silent Alarm and A Weekend in the City, and fine-tuned them and overhauled the production. Musically though, this is very much the same band as two years ago. The biggest change here is Kele Okereke’s lyrical themes which no longer delve into interesting societal quandaries; instead they stay heartfelt, honest and sadly a little trite.
The album rips open with “Ares,” a bombastic track that is immediately reminiscent of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production circa Fear of a Black Planet. The discordant mix of drums and vocal trickery is highly danceable but moderately hard to drive to work to. This song introduces Okereke’s main problem on the album, allowing his very capable vocals to be over processed, cut up, and spit out of a can. It gives the first song a tinny hollow sound, which is not good for the opening track on an album called Intimacy. That being said, the song is certainly an attention grabber and it’s nice to see the band trying new things. “Ares” sounds like no Bloc Party song that has come before it.
The next track, “Mercury,” opens with Okereke’s vocals once again being chopped up and digitally spit out. The lyrics “Mercury is retrograde” are repeated to the point of annoyance during the first 26 seconds of the song. Just so this doesn’t drive you crazy like it did me, here is a brief explanation of what Mercury being in retrograde actually means, since someone obviously wants you too look into it:
“Mercury in retrograde happens three to four times per year, when the planet Mercury slows down, and appears to stop and move backward. It's an optical illusion, since there is forward movement.”
Not to get too far into this, but I am pretty sure some of the music on this song is also in retrograde. This is the process in which musical notes are reversed. This of course adds a certain depth to the song, and allows the listeners who get it to pat themselves on the back as they spout their new found knowledge in the faces of pseudo-friends at parties, but ultimately it is better as a concept than it is in execution. This idea not only describes Okereke’s mentality about his recent loss, it also serves as a starting point for deconstructing what is off about this album, more on that later. As I just mentioned, this song starts to move the listener deeper into the underlying theme of loss that infects the album. Bloc Party stays the course of experimentally here with a bass line that is deeply reminiscent of Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop,” some anomalous horn placement, and over processed vocals cut up and used like an instrument.
As if they know that their average fan may be getting a little put off by this new sound at this point, Bloc Party follows up these two risky songs with the safest, most straightforward song on the album, “Halo.” The song rips open with accessible driving riffs creating a collective sigh of relief in first time listeners, I’m sure. This song certainly proves that Bloc Party knows what sound gets them on the radio, and they know exactly how to retool it enough for it to sound fresh. This song marks an abrupt change in the tone of the album and illustrates the band’s tentativeness to whole heartedly move away from the sound that brought them onto your IPods. This song immediately conjures the catchiness of Silent Alarm as well as the bombast of Weekend in the City. As with most songs on the album, Okereke’s lyrics are certainly heartfelt, but that does not stop them from feeling like shallow broad strokes of emotion so as to not isolate the listener with too much detail.
“Biko,” the fourth track on the album starts much like Appleseed Cast’s album, Peregrine. The looped guitar chords creates a hypnotizing aesthetic that eases the listener into the song. This guitar sound along with Okereke’s light falsetto croons into a punchy computer beat which sadly moves the song into the shores of overproduction leaving the listener feeling a bit abandoned in the center of the cut.
“Signs,” one of the most complete and satisfying tracks on the album, starts with a sound very similar to a xylophone (but who can be sure these days with so much computer tomfoolery going on?). Initially “Signs” sounds a little like something that Radiohead would have produced during their Kid A era. Bloc Party allow the song to build beat by beat and sound by sound, evidently very proud of their arrangement, and they should be; they have crafted a beautiful song that stands out as one of Intimacy’s best songs as it fulfills the promise of the title. It marks the first time that Bloc Party sound comfortable with their sound on this outing, and they thankfully don’t muck it up with overproduction like they do with “Biko.”
“One Month Off” is an extraordinarily danceable breakup song. It’s an odd contrast, but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture a pack of designer dressed and depressed debutantes dancing the night away to this song at Great Scott in Boston. This track delivers a sound that is very similar to Silent Alarm. The chunky and distorted guitars make the song immediately memorable while the lyrics dredge through the indignant immaturity one often suffers after a breakup. Okereke repeats “I can be as cruel as you,” over and over again to the point of compulsion.
“Better than Heaven” is an album standout, containing some of the best lyrics Okereke has penned. Just like “Signs,” “Better than Heaven ” sits nicely under the marquee of Intimacy, unlike many of the other tracks on the album. Even though most of the music encompassed in the song doesn’t come from anything but a circuit board it shows how the band can remain true to the album’s theme while still tinkering with their newfangled software. Unexpectedly the song enters a very heavy breakdown about three minutes in, giving it a great and unexpected dynamic and adds a layer of depth that elevates the track beyond its means.
“Ion Square,” the final track on the album is refreshingly confident, working as a perfect summation of what works on Intimacy. What starts out a little bit like a Peter Bjorn and John song quickly skips into a testimonial of what people know and love about Bloc Party, while managing to sound new and fresh. This is quite a feat after an album that’s this scattershot and diverse as it’s one of those songs that make you want to immediately start the album over. Sonically the final song is so different from the first few songs that it’s startling if you immediately start the disc again, with “Ares” still being that initial punch in the face to get things started.
Much like a relationship, this album feels like a very different beast by the time you reach the end of it. Tonally we shift from anger, to blame, and ultimately to acceptance. Earlier, when I mentioned the immaturity of the lyrics on “One Month Off,” I was not denouncing Okereke’s lyrical capability, but rather the very human and bipolar emotions we have after we lose something we hold dear, that is if you choose to deal with the pain and not repress it.
Bloc Party is sonically and lyrically dealing with growing pains. Intimacy is not a bad album, but it’s not even close to the band’s potential. The record was written from a basic need to speak about a personal internal struggle and was seemly rushed out like an angry email (literally, the physical release isn’t until October 27, bonus tracks and all). It didn’t have time to sit and form into the album it could have been. Because of this it feels very misshapen and all over the place, in other words it feels very human.
This is not the ultimate or even penultimate Bloc Party album, but it does serve as a necessary document of the boys working through their struggles attempting to be the best they can be; warts and all. They are turning into a band that no one expected and that may irritate some, but for the rest of us, the next few years are going to be an exciting time. Much like the metaphor for the second track, on this album Bloc Party’s “mercury is in retrograde.” There is an illusion of regression here, but they are in fact moving forward.