The word “cinematic” gets bandied about a lot in music criticism. One wonders, as one does with any number of the adjectives used by critics and fans, if the word retains any of its original meaning in spite of its overuse. Rest assured, however, the word “cinematic” aptly describes the widescreen pop of Bastille, the British quartet that dominated the musical world last year with its stellar debut Bad Blood. As far as pop music goes, a single like “Pompeii” is the definition of cinematic: booming chanted vocals, a stadium-ready singalong chorus, and pseudo-grandiloquent lyrics (“Oh, where do we begin / The rubble or our sins?”). Bad Blood is equal parts summer blockbuster and would-be West End musical, its universal themes and catchy musical motifs forming a gutsy pop debut.
However, this cinematic quality of Bastille’s music predates Bad Blood. In 2012, group dropped two mixtape EPs, the two-part Other People’s Heartache. Both EPs intersperse Bastille originals with a diverse array of covers, spanning TLC (an inspired take on “No Scrubs” on Pt. 2) to Corona (“Of the Night”) to Frank Ocean (“Thinkin’ Ahead”). What is most notable about the covers, in addition to Bastille’s wise curation, are the film samples spliced throughout the tracks. The cover of “No Scrubs” juxtaposes the “broke-ass” scrub of the song’s title with audio samples from “Psycho”. (The line “a boy’s best friend is his mother” is put in an intriguing light as a result.) A random line of dialogue from Taken is thrown into a danceable take on Seal’s “Killer”. Bastille’s style is both in and of itself cinematic; these clever film samples add to the mix even more.
The Other People’s Heartache EPs represent Bastille at its most creative, and indeed its most compelling. The powerful pop hooks of Bad Blood are as present as they are on that album, but they’re enhanced by the creativity that is afforded to the group by the nature of the mixtapes. Paradoxically, Bastille is most itself when it is singing the songs of others.
With VS., the third part of the Other People’s Heartache trilogy, Bastille steps away from the sample-heavy parts one and two. Rather that covering other artist’s songs, the band brings on a select group of other artists to collaborate on its originals. These include a joint with the indie darling trio HAIM (“Bite Down”), a fresh take on a B-side off the Oblivion EP (highlight “bad_news”), and “The Driver”, taken from Zane Lowe’s controversial “re-scoring” of Nicolas Winding Refn’s smash 2011 neo-noir Drive. Unlike its predecessors in the Other People’s Heartache trilogy, VS. has a noticeable degree of continuity; whether that is in spite of or because of the numerous collaborators here is unclear, but in either event these nine tracks have a natural flow. The choruses are big, the layered vocals haunting, and the hooks instantly memorable.
If one wanted to know what makes Bastille the kind of project it is, she need only give VS.‘s closing track, “Remains”, a single spin. On this version of the tune, the group is joined by London blues/hip-hop hybrid Rag’N’Bone Man and the rock outfit Skunk Anansie, also from London. If you can push past just how much the opening guitar part sounds like “Californication”, you’ll be rewarded with one of those universal, arms-around-your-comrades lyrical passages that allows Bastille to connect so strongly with its increasingly large global audience.
When our live are over and all that remains
Are our skulls and bones let’s take it to the grave
And hold me in your arms, hold me in your arms
I’ll be buried here with you
And I’ll hold in these hands all that remains
Of course, that passage is a bit clunky — if all that’s left are skulls and bones, then you probably are already in your grave — but the words themselves matter less than the feeling that frontman Dan Smith conveys them with. He believes it, and based on just how damn insistent the hook is on “Remains”, you’re liable to believe it too.
Lyrics remain something of a roadblock for Bastille. Take “Weapon”, one of VS.‘s groovier moments, which is capped off with the best coda on the LP. The key refrain of the song, much like the similarly flawed one on the Bad Blood number “Laura Palmer”, mistakes a banal statement for an existentially meaningful one: “Your voice is a weapon / You do with it what you can.” As an opening quotation on a syllabus for a class on the history of free speech, those lines would do their job. Here, however, it’s just another reminder that pop lyrics trend toward the nonchalant, leaving the music and the vocal delivery to do the emotional heavy lifting. VS. proves itself capable of that task, and as a result it lives up to the same mission statement that Bad Blood set out for the band: put simply, make the most epic and immediate pop possible.
Still, it’s a little disheartening to hear Bastille hasn’t advanced much on the lyrical front, particularly since VS. is an interstitial release between Bad Blood and the in-the-works second album. A sophomore album with Bad Blood‘s sense of pomp and urgency would be fantastic; however, an album with Bad Blood‘s lyrics would have less appeal. While it’d be foolhardy to expect A-grade poetry from these guys, hoping for an improvement on the lyrical front is far from unreasonable. Already, this young quartet has mastered a powerful brand of pop; a little improvement in the words department could go a long way in enhancing the songwriting formula. As it stands, VS. is yet another fine outing for this impressive group, one that proves, much like its predecessors, that Bastille does its cleverest work when it goes off-album.