The cultural milieu that Bloc Party’s third album, Intimacy, drops into is perhaps most perfectly summed up by the recent allegations that the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon loosed his entourage on Kele Okereke at a festival in Spain. Increasingly, the post-millennial counterculture gazes back in longing not to the fuzzily idealistic ‘60s but to the sharper, more nihilistic rebellion represented by ‘70s punk. Although punk has undoubtedly been co-opted just as thoroughly as hippie culture, current indie rock trends valorize the zero-sum game of the original punks like Lydon. Adulation for the punk aesthetic is common among the countercultural warriors, but the image of an indie-rock star (allegedly) being verbally, physically, and racially assaulted by punk’s most recognizable iconoclast (or at least his retinue) imparts the danger of such rapprochement. That’s what happens when you hang with iconoclasts: things tend to get broken.
Therefore, when one listens to Intimacy, it’s rather easy to imagine Johnny Rotten beating up Bloc Party for 43 minutes.
This is not to say that it’s a bad record. Johnny Rotten has probably beaten people up for a lot less. Intimacy is a curious piece of work in that it’s both confidently swaggering and deeply unsure of itself. It sees the band grasping at old straws for a cutting-edge direction and yet mostly landing every associated leap. In the lead-up to the album’s short-notice digital release last week (not the first or the last time Bloc Party have evoked Radiohead, to be sure), Okereke characterized Intimacy as splitting the difference between the “rawness” of their amazing debut Silent Alarm and the “experience” of its mostly-panned follow-up A Weekend in the City. Though there is nothing with either the momentous abandon of “Helicopter” or the romantic grandeur of “I Still Remember” to be found here, Okereke’s vague allusion to William Blake does hint at the final product, an album defined by the tension of post-punk buzz saw riffing and textured mood-balladry, of innocence and experience. Except with dance beats.
Bloc Party is hardly the first ambitious British rock act to flirt with the club culture, and their origins in proscribed dance-punk give them a stronger claim to the floor than U2 or Bowie or Radiohead ever had. None of those bands’ sudden discoveries that the kids like to get down resulted in their strongest output, but Bloc Party wears the Big Beat influence well enough, for their part. More importantly, it helps to recapture some of the vigor they seemed to have hemorrhaged between their first two records. Intimacy sounds like the product of the band that was ready to take on the world back in 2005, and there are lots of reasons to believe they’ve only just started to hit their stride.
Album opener “Ares” is paramount among these reasons. Russell Lissack’s live-wire guitars and Matt Tong’s Chemical Brothers-derived backbeat suggest Silent Alarm‘s initial charge “Like Eating Glass”, but with an expansive, hepped-up viciousness worthy of the titular god of war. The call-and-response vocal structure references Edwin Starr’s legendary protest anthem “War”, sometimes directly (“War! / War! / War!”, Okereke lets out at one point). But then it comes to a screeching halt for an ethereal falsetto breakdown before coasting to the finish on dance floor self-involvement: “We dance to the sound of sirens”, wails Okereke, as we dance to guitars that, well, sound like sirens. Lead single “Mercury” follows hard on its heels, and though it’s easily the most club-ready cut on the record, it’s still hard to know what to make of it. Its electronic palette is unquestionably dense, collapsing Timbaland synths into dramatic horn samples. But the chorus is a clumsy focal point, the computer looping and Decepticon effects inflicted upon Okereke’s vocals failing to disguise the fact that its only line comes across like the thesis of a chemistry paper.
But for all the concern about clubland concessions, the influence wanes considerably after the first two tracks. “Halo” is a more cacophonous take on the structure of Silent Alarm standout “Positive Tension”, “Trojan Horse” is another effective near-cousin, and “One Month Off” might have been an outtake from the debut, its personal-cum-political refrain (“I can be as cruel as you / Fighting fire with firewood”) sidling up coolly next to similarly-pitched efforts like “Pioneers”. “Biko”, meanwhile, replicates the wave of wussiness that A Weekend in the City ended on. Okereke’s preening fragility as he sings “So toughen up / This world isn’t kind to little beings” targets pathos, but scratches feebly at the door of bathos instead. “Signs” could have been a revisiting of the mesmerizing starbursts of “So Here We Are”, but sticks stubbornly in the mid-tempo instead and relies on co-producer Jacknife Lee’s trademarked music-box bell percussion to drive it. Not that any of these tracks are bad, mind you. They’re mostly accomplishing what they set out to do, and the songs often set out to do quite a bit.
Just as they did on their last record, however, Bloc Party takes a sharp turn away from the expected at the end of Intimacy. “Zephyrus” is the most naked break-up lyric on a record that Okereke has said is defined by a break-up, but it’s also bizarrely cinematic in its scope. Okereke gives his supple voice its most strenuous workout, backed by a skipping beat and an enormous choir. It’s as if Thom Yorke mashed up his Eraser album with the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. The hubris underlying it is almost as magnificent as the song itself. “Better than Heaven” proceeds, a brooding Joy Division pastiche until the very-Bloc Party explosion in its last quarter. And the e.e. cummings-quoting “Ion Square” might be their first genuine epic, underscored by relentless hi-hats and more of those insistent orchestral touches.
Though I never felt that A Weekend in the City was the tragic derailment of an unstoppable train many observers found it to be, Intimacy sees Bloc Party get definitively back on track. Unwise detours aside, the restless vitality that made Silent Alarm such an electrifying debut returns in spades. But the necessary sacrifices to the punk rock gods are not made, and so the Johnny Rottens of the world shall remain unsatisfied. Though never worthy of the pedestal it’s been placed upon, classic punk at least had a single-minded dedication that the indie-rock of Bloc Party is too considered and wary to share, an unshakeable will to power that a rock star of Kele Okereke’s persusasion can’t reach and might not want to if he could. They’re less interested in being iconoclasts than in picking up the pieces of what the iconoclasts have broken and making something out of those pieces. Intimacy might not actually be all that intimate, but it is a thing of rough, recycled beauty. And if that isn’t worth getting beat up for, I don’t know what is.
- Multiple songs MySpace