Bloc Party has definitely made a huge mark on modern music. Their debut album Silent Alarm displayed an energy and emotional honesty that clearly set them apart from most of the too-cool-for-school attitude of most "indie-rock" bands. It was this that prompted the NME to claim Bloc Party as "the band of 2005, no contest. As vital as The Clash in ’77Ã¢€Â¦"
Big shoes to fill, and the London-based outfit didn’t disappoint. But despite this comparison, Bloc Party noticeably shied away from political issues. They denied that their song "Helicopter" was about George W Bush, and lead singer Kele Okereke also criticized Green Day for jumping on the "anti-Bush bandwagon." Rather, it was their sheer openness and basic humanity that had young people clamoring for their records.
But a lot has happened since Silent Alarm’s release. Just ask Okereke. Rather than focus on the group’s music, the mainstream music press zoomed in on the singer’s ethnicity; he’s the son of Nigerian immigrants. Then, they hounded him about rumors of his bisexuality, which he confirmed after a few months. Okereke, known for his reserved and shy personality, was visibly frustrated by all this.
It’s this kind of coverage that has the potential to make artists fear for their creative sanity. But rather than do that, or lash out at the press (which they would be completely justified in doing), Bloc Party have let those experiences shape their new album, A Weekend in the City. In doing so, they have released a shockingly deep and powerful record.
A step forward from Silent Alarm, the band has expanded its already intricate and layered sound, combining softer melodies with their raw frenetic power; a perfect compliment to Okereke’s lyrics, which dare to venture into very heavy and often taboo subjects. The same range of emotions are expressed on this album: alienation, despair, hope, anger, etc. But Okereke has clearly put them in a frightening and confusing world: modern London. "East London is a vampire/it sucks the joy right out of me," sets the tone in the album’s opening track "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)."
Bloc Party’s London is especially alienating and hard for groups seldom mentioned or represented in pop music today: gays and people of color. It’s a badly needed shift from the straight white boys club that seems to be the face of modern rock n’ roll. "I just feel that every non-white teenager will know what I’m talking about when I say that certain avenues in this country are closed to you," Okereke told the Guardian in reference to the new album. "Whenever I walk into a pub in London I feel frightened. There are certain activities that are still predominantly white."
This is the world-one of inequality and bigotry-that Okereke has unflinchingly written into Weekend. The track "Where is Home?" highlights this in a gut-wrenching way as it starts at the funeral of Christopher Alaneme, a black youth stabbed to death last April, whom Okereke knew well. In a country where ASBOs ("Anti-Social Behavior Orders") are used to scapegoat anyone with dark skin, this song hits hard.
Another highlight of the album comes in the menacing "Hunting for Witches," directed at the racist backlash following the London bombings in July 2005. "[That song was] written when I was just observing the reactions of the mainstream press and I was just amazed by how easy it’d been to whip them up into a fury," remarks Okereke. "I guess the point about the song for me is that post-September 11th, the media has really traded on fear and the use of fear in controlling people."
But it would be wrong to portray Weekend as overwhelmingly bleak. The beautifully Cure-esque "I Still Remember" is a vivid portrayal of modern love; more explicitly one about a secret gay rendez-vous. When so many "love songs" trade in on cheap clichÃƒÂ©, this tune is especially refreshing: "You should have asked me for it/I would have been brave/You should have asked me for it/How could I say no?" Love does take bravery, and doubly so when it’s forbidden.
If one characteristic could sum up this diverse album, it would be the very thing that has set Bloc Party apart from the beginning: their willingness to be honest and open in their music. In an image-obsessed industry, this band has been bold enough to eschew pretension and speak their mind. In doing so, Weekend manages to capture perfectly what it feels like to be alive-truly alive-in frightening and frustrating times. That the album’s lyrics are pulled directly from their songwriters’ own experiences only highlights this.
It is a hard thing to wear your heart on your sleeve. Bloc Party wear theirs with style. And this has lead them to produce one of the most poignant records in a long, long time. This is a flat-out incredible album. And if Bloc Party continues on this path then they will indeed end up one of the most important bands of our time.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist living in Washington DC. He maintains the music blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelrequencies.blogspot.com), and is currently working on his book The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of The Clash. He can be reached at [email protected]