Would it be unfair to blame Jacknife Lee for this?
I should explain: The recipients of Jacknife Lee’s two highest-profile production jobs thus far have been Snow Patrol and U2 — both of Snow Patrol’s big hit albums (Final Straw and Eyes Open) were produced by Lee, and his involvement on U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb won the producer a Grammy. Lee was even the man tapped to remaster the entire U2 backcatalogue for release on iTunes. As such, it only makes sense that he would bring many of the same tricks and the same sensibility that he brought to those bands along with him on his stint at producing Bloc Party for its latest album, A Weekend in the City.
The problem is, Bloc Party is not Snow Patrol. Bloc Party is not U2. Bloc Party made its name on Silent Alarm as a little-band-that-could type that gets by as much on pure, unbridled energy as it does on any sort of strength in its songwriting. Snow Patrol and U2, for all of the differences between the two bands, get by on anthemic gestures and soaring vocal turns. Without going into which band is better than who, the production approach needs to completely change when you’re going from a band that writes anthems to a band that writes white-hot fireballs.
Lee did not adapt. Or, perhaps, Bloc Party chose to adapt to him, in the hunt for greater exposure and an expanded audience. Either way, the result is a band that is playing to its greatest weaknesses, never managing to prove that those weaknesses will ever be overcome.
At the forefront in every sense is vocalist Kele Okereke, the face of the band, a face that bleats and grunts as much as it actually sings. And that’s fine, as long as it’s what the songs and the music call for — his unique, distinctive, and pleasingly untrained voice was perfect for Silent Alarm, a setting more suited to raw emotion than any sort of musicality. A Weekend in the City, however, has moments like the verse of “The Prayer”, an atonal mess of flat singing and multitracking in a song that also happens to have what might be the most beautiful chorus Bloc Party has ever written — if anything else in the song could have gotten off the ground, it would be an unforgettable classic. As it is, it’s fairly torturous hearing such a wonderful refrain surrounded by such a mess. Lee has done everything in his power, actually, to turn Okereke into a distinctive vocalist: he’s added “ahhhh” vocals to the background (“Sunday”), he’s tracked a second Okereke an octave below himself for an entire song to add strength to a particularly poor turn (“Where is Home?”), he even throws a flange on him for a second or two at a time (“Waiting for the 7.18”). The problem is, the tricks disguise nothing. They sound like tricks.
And then there’s the anthemic stuff. Not everything should be an anthem. Words like “After sex / The bitter taste / Been fooled again / The search continues” should not be the repeated coda at the end of a building, fairly triumphant song. Unless the triumph is meant to be the acceptance, these are small words from a humbled man, not big thoughts from the enlightened as the music makes them sound. “Let’s drive to Brighton on the weekend” is not suitable chorus fodder when that chorus is going to be sung ten times in a row with the exact same melody. It’s as if every single song was written with the idea that it might just be the statement that defines the band for the rest of its career, and there’s simply no need for that — there’s room on an album for small stuff, too.
Lee does manage to make this a clean-sounding album, I’ll give him that. His electronic flourishes on songs like “Hunting for Witches” and “Where is Home?” are welcome, and “On” is a love song that highlights everything wonderful about this band — the energy, the cryptic lyrics that point in the direction of literal meaning but never quite get there, the humility that is required of bands with somewhere to be. The beautifully subtle screeching strings flying over the top don’t hurt, either.
Moments and songs like those are why I’m willing to give Bloc Party a mulligan for this one. A Weekend in the City is the type of album made by bands that aren’t quite sure where to go for their second statement to the world, after a first statement that’s received with almost universal acclaim. As such, a producer is brought in, to help guide them and mold them into a hit-making machine. Unfortunately, Jacknife Lee was the wrong producer choice, and the direction in which Bloc Party has traveled is entirely unsuited to its strengths — rather than transcending the band’s downfalls, Lee has amplified them. For now, Bloc Party should either play to its strengths or spend more time on the improvement of its deficiencies. As it is, for all its attempted grandeur, A Weekend in the City is little more than a stepping stone.