Bastille purveys in what might be best described as “apocalyptic pop”. Though Bad Blood, the band’s major label debut, operates within the safe realms of verse-chorus structure, everything is amped up to 11, creating a sense of urgency that makes what could have been a collection of ordinary electronic indie pop sound like a battle cry for the end times. Booming male choirs, string effects, echoey pianos, allusions to Greek mythology and the Bible—Bastille brings out all the artillery on Bad Blood, and the result is nothing less than earth-shattering. Whether frontman Dan Smith is singing about past grudges (the title track) or the streets of his childhood (“These Streets”), the feeling that’s always left behind is unshakeable significance. It’s the kind of feeling that Muse’s Occupy-baiting The Resistance tried to nail four years ago. Fortunately for Bastille, the ballyhooed Mayan calendar debacle likely provided some inspiration for Bad Blood‘s imminence that the Orwellian delusions of The Resistance lacked. Smith has likely read a Chuck Palahniuk novel or two in his young life, as he has taken Rant Casey’s line “We won’t never be as young as we is tonight” to be his band’s MO.
But the real defining trait of Bad Blood is the you-I dialectic. Bastille made an impressive entrance into the music world last year with the two-part mixtape Other People’s Heartache, an 18-song collection of covers and reworked versions of songs that would later appear on this album. Through these covers, Smith familiarized himself with the notion of “The Other”, the nameless listener with whom the singer addresses himself to. By its nature, the cover version creates a distance between the artist covering the song and the original musician; the result of these reimaginations tends to oscillate between brilliance and a complete bastardization of the source material. What Other People’s Heartache demonstrated was that Bastille was comfortable in the shoes of the other as much as his own. His cover of Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” stood up well alongside his haunting original “Oblivion”. On Bad Blood, he takes the topic of self-other distance and blows it up in all of his lyrics. In “Flaws”, when Smith pleads, “There’s a hole in my soul / Can you fill it?”, he gets right at the emotional core of this album. The horror-inflected sleeve art, which depicts Smith running off into the formless black of night, is a great pictorial representation of this. Each of the songs on the LP paints the picture of a massive distance between the listener and Smith that can only be traversed by major acts of will.
If “Pompeii’s” current climbing of the UK charts is evidence enough, the broad-based appeal of Bad Blood means that for most, that distance will easily be spanned. Both parts of Other People’s Heartache are already good evidence of Smith’s uncanny pop sensibility, and this record is a culmination of a still-young career. Cuts like “Pompeii” and “Bad Blood”, the two lead singles, are indicative of his ability to rein in a massive hook, as the former, in particular, is already one of 2013’s best singles. This energy isn’t exclusive to the radio fare. The cheerleader-chant chorus of “Things We Lost in the Fire” has all the makings for a minor sing-along classic. He’s even shot ahead his British compatriots Coldplay in the field of piano balladry as album highlight “Daniel in the Den” is one of those stadium-fillers that’s easily the defining Bastille track. The Biblical parallel isn’t fleshed out in any deep way, but when backed with show-stopping piano melodies and a palpable existential mood, Smith’s words ring out like the only true thing in the world: “And you thought the lions were bad / Well they tried to kill my brothers / And for every king that died / Oh they would crown another.”
If there’s one major flaw on this album, it’s the same thing that threatens to undercut “Daniel and the Den’s” potency, namely lyrical blandness. Also, like Coldplay, Smith has the tendency to lean on important sounding but otherwise meaningless declarations. “This is your heart / Can you feel it? / Can you feel it? / Pumps through your veins / Can you feel it?” he implores on “Laura Palmer”, confusing banal biology for emotional depth. The otherwise interesting metaphor behind “Weight of Living Pt. II” is wasted on a flat, repetitive chorus. Even more lamentable, however, is Smith’s habit of John C. McGinley-style syllable elongation: “I don’t want them” is dragged out to the length of two measures on “These Streets”. Smith’s voice is a malleable benefit to Bastille’s sonic, with his impressive ability to range from neo-R&B crooning to anthemic rock chanting, and a definite asset to capitalize on in the future even if it is a little rough around the edges right now. Smith himself seems to recognize his imperfections: “flaw” is a recurring word throughout, especially in “Flaws” and “These Streets”.
If apocalypse scares have taught the world anything, it’s that things tend to smolder rather than conflagrate. But for all 43 enrapturing minutes of Bad Blood, you’ll be convinced that everything and everyone you’ve ever loved are suddenly leaving you, and now the only thing left to do is reach out and declare from the mountaintops all the things you’ve kept secret in your life. That heightened sense of immediacy is hard to keep up, but Bastille does it remarkably well, resulting in a debut that’s as infectious as it is dramatically powerful. The world may have yet to meet its end, but if lingering doomsday worries lead to albums like Bad Blood, maybe things won’t be so bad after all.
// Notes from the Road
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