[3 March 2009]
After Bell X1’s previous album, Flock, the fact that Damien Rice was the original singer of this band (at the time named Jupiter) seemed irrelevant. Rice’s solo work represents a delicate tenderness that can, at any given moment, explode into a cathartic passion that expresses the deepest emotions in all of us. Bell X1, on the other hand, have evolved into a well-rehearsed arena rock band, ready to overtake bands like Franz Ferdinand and Coldplay with both great musicianship and catchy songwriting. However, the latest album from the Irish collective, Blue Lights on the Runway, signifies that they have not forgotten Rice’s delicacy. They embrace it in full stride, reaching a new level of softheartedness on “Light Catches Your Face” and “The Curtains Are Twitchin’”. More varied than Flock, Blue Lights on the Runway is the band’s latest opus, accomplishing everything their contemporaries have attempted in the last few years in one fell swoop.
Upon first glance, the album immediately appears more grandiose than Flock with much longer songs on average and titles like “The Great Defector”. Given the band’s poppy style, the longer songs run the risk of getting old and overdoing themselves, but throughout the album’s hour duration, Bell X1 shows incredible restraint. Even on the energetic opener “The Rib of a Broken Umbrella”, the band never reaches its full capacity until the last minute of the song, letting the tempo drive the song forward for the preceding four minutes. Certainly a turnaround in album structure from Flock‘s bombastic “Reacharound”, the leash kept on the album opener allows for Blue Lights on the Runway to develop much slower, and thus, it feels more like a full, connected album by its conclusion. Also keeping the album interesting throughout is the enhanced and more focused use of electronics, perfectly displayed in the beat and synths of “How Your Heart Is Wired”.
While album structure certainly drives the album towards success, what really pulls everything together is the sound. Blue Lights on the Runway is constantly expansive, always opening into a world of synth and guitar, often creating the sound Coldplay attempted on Viva la Vida. Despite losing a guitarist between this album and Flock, the album is remarkably more epic in nature. “Amelia” sounds like an Eno-produced track, combining a simple bass groove and drum groove with a plethora of strings and synth drenched in reverb to warm up the sound, especially in the immaculate chorus, arguably the album’s most gorgeous moment. The result, however, ends up sounding more like a better “I Will Possess Your Heart”. As the longest song on the album at seven minutes, it feels like a mini-epic, but not through any driving tempo or huge climax. The grandiose nature of the synth and string swells, the vocal harmonies, and the lyrical catchphrases that recall Animal Collective in their awkward bluntness all contribute to something incredible.
If there is anything to seriously criticize on the album, it is the sometimes bizarre lyrics and melodies of vocalist Paul Noonan. For example, in “One Stringed Harp”, the punchline of the whole song, well-composed musically, is “But you’re just pickin’ your knickers from your arse / Like you’re playin’ a one-stringed harp,” which is particularly out of place after the song grows from a stripped down verse to a full chorus, and this is the line that leads to the capitulation of the crescendo. His bluntness is simply too much sometimes (“You’re so pretty and I’m so lame” in “Breastfed”). Luckily, in all of these moments, the music behind the vocals is good enough that the vocals can be ignored. “Breastfed” keeps a natural 7/4 groove throughout, pacifying the more critical listeners with something just slightly more complex than the average song.
In short, Blue Lights on the Runway has it all. It has the beautiful ballads in “Light Catches Your Face” and “The Curtains Are Twitchin’”, the latter of which recalls the latest Sigur Ros album when the brass ensemble enters to add subtle inflections. In the cowbell-lead “A Better Band” and lead single “The Great Defector”, Bell X1 returns to Flock to write great pop rock songs. To cement the album as the band’s best work to date, “Amelia” redefines what the band can do at their best. With a little more exposure, Bell X1 can become the darling of both critics and casual listeners in 2009. They combine the perfect amount of poppy hook and good musicianship for something that will appeal to almost anyone.