It seems hard to fathom that over a decade has passed since Bloc Party released their debut Silent Alarm, a razor-sharp collection of jagged post-punk spiked 25 years into the modern age. The band has shifted directions a few times but have never really come close to equalling their classic debut. Bloc Party’s second album, 2007’s A Weekend in the City, brought strong melodies, more electronic elements and lush, cinematic arrangements, but didn’t quite have the same ferocity. Still, it was certainly a worthy follow-up, and it looked like Bloc Party might become one of the more important bands of the decade. Alas, since then the general trajectory has been downward. Synthetic blips and bleeps became more prominent on 2008’s Intimacy and in the two hyper-electro solo releases by frontman Kele Okereke. The band’s 2012 album Four was an attempt to reconnect with the edgier rock vibe of Silent Alarm but the songs weren’t quite there, nor was the focus. None of their albums have been total failures — Bloc Party’s creative nucleus of Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack are too talented for that — but their output has been an exercise in diminishing returns.
Sadly, their fifth album does nothing to reverse the now decade-long trendline. Hymns finds the band in a state of transition. Two members — drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes — are gone, replaced by newcomers Justin Harris of Menomena and Louise Bartle, who joined the band too late to drum on Hymns. Alex Thomas, known for collaborations with Squarepusher, Bat for Lashes and Badly Drawn Boy, handles those duties. The name of the album is no accident. Okereke’s lyrics have often explored searching through the landmines and pitfalls of the modern world for something solid and real. In one of Bloc Party’s finest tracks, “I Still Remember”, Okereke relates an ephemeral attraction to another young man that wisps away like smoke through his fingers, and exists now only as a memory and a regret. Hymns finds him in a similarly reflective mood, groping toward a mystifying and ultimately undefined spirituality that is always just beyond his fingertips. A quick skim through the song titles — “The Love Within”, “Only He Can Heal Me”, “So Real”, “The Good News”, “My True Name” — speaks to their searching nature.
Hymns opens with two of its strongest tracks. “The Love Within” is a throbbing new wave rocker with a marching beat, gloopy whirrs of keyboard and by far the catchiest melody on the album. It would easily slide right into The Killers’ Hot Fuss alongside radio anthems like “Somebody Told Me” and “Mr. Brightside”. There is a palpable desperation to “Only He Can Heal Me”, in which Okereke recites all of the ways life has sliced him to shreds, and he desperately awaits an unnamed saviour to rescue him from himself and the world around him. The piercing bleakness makes it clear he’s aware all along there is no “He”, and the song ends with no resolution — no healing, no divine intervention, no relief.
So it goes on Hymns. The world is emotionally bleak, but there must be some escape, somewhere up there. “The Good News”, built on a churning guitar riff, has the air of a song you might hear at an affluent suburban megachurch — or it might if it wasn’t clear the track is dripping with bitterness. Okereke is completely unsure what “the good news” might be, or how to attain it, and seems defeated by the prospects of chasing it.
Bombarded on all sides, Okereke retreats from reality and descends into a refuge of sensuality in the icily beautiful “Fortress”. It’s a stark electronic ballad with ghostly swells of keyboard and eerie effects over which Okereke delivers a supple, soulful vocal that rises and falls like the tide. The lyrics are as brazenly sexual as something you might expect from an old Prince tune: “And I’m a fool for the sight / of all the gold between your thighs… / and when we sex, we hear the beat / and it’s so serene”. Okereke’s instincts sometimes fail him, through. “Different Drugs” is tense but melodramatic, and seems to be about the fall-out within his band that resulted in two members leaving. If this is the case, then it’s not a particularly effective jab, and comes off as self-righteous. Perhaps that is too literal a reading, but the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle. Okereke can be a beautiful lyricist, but some of the lines here are good only for winces.
“Exes” is an acoustic ballad that seems to reinforce the album’s theme of searching but not finding in its opening lines, barbed with self-loathing: “If you seen an explanation / Well, i’m afraid there is not one / see all I have are excuses.” The track never really gels into anything compelling, though, despite a glossy production that tries a bit too hard. There are too many sonic elements, too many shiny bits that only distract. The album closes with “Living Lux”, a somber piece built on pulses of bass and synth. Okereke mourns the loss of innocence and connection between lovers as they grow older, richer, more devoted to their own private worlds. Riven with nostalgia and regret, he may as well be speaking of his band: “The world was ours then / I had conviction, but you, you had style / such a lethal combination / the years changed us, the money weighed us down / we lost our way… / for we both know that this is the end / for the times we fought and the times we shared / I’ll sing you a song the way I used to then.” It’s an elegy worthy of a band that was never able to live up to the masterpiece debut that has turned into an albatross.
Ultimately Hymns leaves the listener as exhausted and listless as Okereke’s downbeat lyrics (which too often read like adolescent poetry). The elements just don’t come together. The disillusionment is too numbing to be compelling, the melodies and arrangements not quite interesting enough to really capture attention. There are moments, sure, but by the end we’re turning our head to the sky and beseeching an indifferent universe to provide some good news to us, too. It seems like it’s in short supply.