With a newfound interest in sonic spaciousness and avant-prog song constructions, Irish indie-rockers Bell X1 offer what is arguably their most focused effort to date.
"So much to hear / So much to hear / Take your sweet time", Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan sings on "Take Your Sweet Time", the aptly-named centerpiece of the Irish trio's latest LP Arms. Delivered over an incandescent guitar motif, what could be called the aural equivalent of a twinkle of sunlight reflected on glass, it's a lyric that says a lot about the record as a whole, as well as the band that produced it. This is patient music, deliberate music, music that speaks through texture and subtle variegations rather than speaker-obliterating volume and melodic maximalism. There's a lot to hear, but it takes time to catch it all and thoroughly appreciate it.
Throughout Arms, you can still hear the cross-pollination of widescreen indie rock and ponderous, pseudo-ambient electronic pop that cemented the band's status as one of Ireland's most popular acts. But there's something else as well, a newfound interest in sonic spaciousness and avant-prog song constructions. Contemplative, carefully arranged, full of real-time reveries and lyrical ruminations that lengthen before you, it's a record that not only proves Bell X1 have settled into the late-career maturity displayed on 2011's Bloodless Coup and 2013's Chop Chop, but also that, after six full-length albums, they're still willing to take risks and dissect their own sound.
"Bring Me a Fire King" is a perfect example of this cerebral songwriting approach. Theoretically, it's individual components -- an early '70s soft-soul groove, exultant jazz saxophone, electro-flourishes, a plainspoken, subtly cryptic vocal -- would seem like a poor match for one another. In practice, though, the result is far from a cluttered farrago: this is a concentrated act of sonic hypnosis, a daydream, a dissipating mist revealing glints of sun; in other words, a composition bursting with creative dynamism that takes its time to build an atmosphere of flagging yet firm hopefulness. Employing his signature darkly comic lyrical style, Noonan weaves a story about an anonymous modern man experiencing some vague existential crisis and calling for a burning deity, perhaps a symbol for faith or ego-destroying passion, to save him. "Sitting there, playing stickman golf on his phone / He didn't ask for any of this / None of this whole life is in your hands," he sings, pivoting, without pause, from caustic wittiness to abstract pontification.
This sort of humor suffuses the band's discography. In their biggest American hit, "The Great Defector", it was deployed to describe the take-your-feet-out-from-under-you sensation of being suddenly enraptured by life's beauty. "Getting ready to spill my guys / And I love the color of it all," Noonan wails, offering an image -- ecstasy imagined as an all-enveloping chromatic explosion - that returns in a somewhat different from during "Bring Me a Fire King". Just past the 3:00 minute mark, Noonan repeats the LP's undergirding mantra ("Taking her sweet time") before being subsumed within a towering surge of synthesizer swells and strong, reverential drums. It's a moment, startling in its intensity, that seems to sonically express the "color of it all" that "The Great Defector" lyrically presaged.
While there's no obvious standout here, Arms is a record of marked consistency and tonal conviction. "Sons & Daughters", which bases its architecture around a bright, tiptoeing-with-bare-feet piano melody, is another exemplar of the band's updated take on heady, hyper-polished indie rock, and it contains what is arguably the funniest lyrical content on the LP. "Oh, my distant sons and daughters / I hope you can forgive yourselves and I hope you forgive me," Noonan sings, then explains the vice he will need to be forgiven for, "There were too many distractions and too much good T.V.". The gentle, almost ghostly lovesick pop of "I Go Where You Go" also stands as compelling evidence of the album's pervasive quality.
Of all nine tracks, though, "Fake Memory" may be the one that lingers in your psyche the longest. Cribbing its chorus melody from the Shins' staggeringly effective "Phantom Limb", it's a song that throws into light what has made Bell X1 popular for so long in their home country, indeed what continues to make them popular: an ability to create music that is not only humorous, well-produced, and viscerally appealing at a pure-pop level, but also surprising, crammed with small twists and turns as well as layers of entrancing textural color.