In under a year, the story has become cliché: a band announces an album with little lead time in an effort to cut down on leaks and illegal downloading and to reintroduce the album as an event. Radiohead did it first, sans label, followed by Trent Reznor, Saul Williams, the Raconteurs and Girl Talk. And now Bloc Party.
Bloc Party’s announcement last week that its third album, Intimacy, would be out in three days, was one of the first short-notice albums to truly make sense. The band’s previous album, the languid A Weekend in the City, was undoubtedly hurt by illegal downloading (it’s not like Radiohead or NIN are hard-up for album sales), because it hit torrent sites months in advance. Moreover, that album’s general downcast and ethereal vibe had all the tight-jeaned hipsters who ate up the band’s excellent dancy-post-punk debut, Silent Alarm, yelling sophomore slump.
Intimacy was promised as a return to form, and to a small extent it is, but it’s really the sound of two seemingly opposing ideals: a rocking band occasionally remembering what made it great in the first place, and a lead singer who just got out of a terrible break-up that’s really left him messed up and who can’t write any songs that aren’t downcast and referring to it explicitly. The collision’s result finds the members of Bloc Party reclaiming (part of) their old luster, while still clinging to some of their more tedious idiosyncrasies.
Frontman Kele Okereke’s syllable overload and momentum-killing lyrics have often proved to be one of Bloc Party’s Achilles Heels — back when they were shaking asses they could often be over-looked, but on Weekend he seemed like a college student who just took his first political science class and was pissed off by what he learned. Likewise, on Intimacy his ambition often outpaces the execution. But here, the lyrics have a more distinct personal feel than any of his previous output.
Even without the fact that Okereke reported in interviews leading up to Intimacy’s release that the album is about a break-up, it doesn’t take the most astute listener to realize he is depressed/pissed off by the end of a relationship. The album doesn’t even dwell much on the relationship when it was great; it’s all about the bad parts. On the jagged “Trojan Horse" (which plays like a beefed-up version of “The Price of Gas”), Okerke sings, “You used to take your watch off before we made love/ You didn’t want to share our time with anyone” before saying, “There’s nothing here at all.” Highly charged, siren-sounding guitar powers “Ares,” a song depicting a relationship close to explosion. On the downcast “Biko” (not a reference to this song or this one, which is disappointing), Okerke equates a relationship as a death of the other partner.
But the album’s best tracks are more concerned with getting back at the ex. Air-raid lead single “Mercury,” which features self-assessing lines like, “I’m sleeping with people I don’t even like,” recalls what the band used to be like before they tried treatises on what people wear (“Uniform” on Weekend). “One Month Off” — which is “Helicopter” 2.0 — describes the fight that leads to the break-up (“I can be as cruel as you fighting fire with fire wood”) and the infidelity involved (“Tell me what the others can do that I cannot”).
But the same problems that sank A Weekend in the City pop up again and again on Intimacy. The band’s eagerness to record songs that are more fit for wedding receptions than dance floors (or even loners’ headphones) — like on the flaccid “Biko,” the big, sweeping “Signs,” the whining drum machine sketch “Zephyrus,” and the Flock of Seagulls sway of “Ion Square” — removes any of the grit, and more important, the fun, this band had in 2005.
It’s not like they’re making a big illogical jump into balladeering. (Silent Alarm did have a couple of those; anyone remember “Blue Light” and “Compliments”?) But songs like “Zephyrus,” and Intimacy as a whole, reveal Bloc Party as unwilling to be the band everyone wants them to be — the best New Order appropriates on the planet — in favor of being the band that will make them hits outside of the constructs of post-post-punk — writing limp, sappy songs that’ll make girls with emo haircuts and purple nail polish swoon. All that leads to is them being the (barely) edgier version of Panic! At the Disco.