As long as they've been around, Bloc Party have had an insistence on putting divisive political bents on their purely populist hooks. But in another sense, that strident power-to-the-people ethos is exactly what made Bloc Party the one post-punk revivalist band in the early aughts most likely to succeed in the long-term. They believe in disrupting Conventional Authority and empowering the Individual, and their most successful record by a long shot, Silent Alarm, was a similar-minded flurry of elbows jockeying for a larger share of the limelight. But instead of allowing their desired mode of social reform to manifest in another stirring LP, they move through their latest, Four, in a strict military lock-step.
The album's title could allude to a number of things, but the most important is the four years between this record and their last, Intimacy. Because while Intimacy hinted at a band losing its edge, you can definitely hear where the four-year hiatus might have really done its harm. By no means are they rusty—they're as tight and mechanical as ever. Nor would it be fair to say they've lost ambition—this may as well be a how-to guide for bands like British Sea Power trying to fill the same stadiums as U2 or Coldplay without diving quite so deep into the adult-contempo crowd. But Four doesn't have that certain intangible spark; it lacks a central sense of urgency that comes from the immediate need for approval by anyone outside the inner recording circle. It doesn't sound road-tested, and it's hard to imagine a large audience witnessing this performance without thinking, "Is this it?"
Lead single "Octopus" patches a staccato riff onto a catchy hook; but where they once might have rode the bass into a deeper chorus, here they pull back on the reins and settle back into a verse. Meanwhile, "Kettling" has the opposite problem and ends up getting bogged down by the weight of its own bass and ending up somewhere near nu-metal. And while "We're Not Good People" at least sounds like they're enjoying themselves, it's a rough, riff-centered track unworthy of a pop band this promising. Surprisingly, it's the mellowed-out "V.A.L.I.S." that packs the most interesting instrumental interplay.
Vocalist Kele Okereke is the most visible member of the group, and he's the only consistent force on Four, throwing his voice all over the mix with the same wild conviction he's devoted to the band's entire catalog. All of this after the band reportedly considered moving on without him. And it's easy to throw stones now, but in reality Bloc Party's success rate hinges entirely on the parts that Okereke can't control.
Take "Like Eating Glass," a song on Silent Alarm in which every single member sounds like he's performing a solo, though they're actually strung together into one massive hook. There isn't a single moment like that on all of Four. Whereas they were once linked by a shared Attentional Deficit Disorder, they're now a lot more focused on producing a record instead of evoking a spark. They trade solos; they take turns playing hooks.
You can't bemoan a band for trying to expand their palette. Heck, even the slow-burner "Blue Light" had a time and place on Silent Alarm, so it's not like they're working with limited range. The difference is how Bloc Party once came with something to prove, and the conviction necessary to prove it. Four takes the audience's interest for granted, and refuses to step out of line to draw more interest. So much for a revolution.