Spotlight

Bloc Party: It's Time To Get Serious

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

In the 2005 song "Positive Tension," Bloc Party promised "something glorious is about to happen, a reckoning."

And it did. The Essex-born, now London-based quartet's critically acclaimed debut, "Silent Alarm," went platinum and won NME's "album of the year" honors, and the band toured the world with a propulsive, post-punk amalgam of dance rock and art rock that drew on such home-brewed influences as the Cure, Gang of Four and Joy Division as well as such American acts as the Pixies, Sonic Youth and Smashing Pumpkins. Along with Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and the Futureheads, Bloc Party helped revitalize the British guitar rock movement.

Emerging bands love manifestoes, and the one on Bloc Party's Web site initially described the group as "an autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day." Now "the present day" is two years further along, and Bloc Party's second album, "A Weekend in the City," seems to be more about glorious things that didn't happen, promises not kept and dreams deferred.

In "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)," the album's opening track, singer-guitarist Kele Okereke mournfully confesses that "I am trying to be heroic in an age of modernity / I am trying to be heroic as all around me history sinks." Okereke, who writes all of Bloc Party's lyrics and melodies, adds, "So I enjoy and I devour flesh and wine and luxury / But in my heart I am lukewarm / Nothing ever really touches me." The song then spins into a taut catalogue of hedonistic behavior before Okereke says, "East London is a vampire, it sucks the joy right out of me."

"Hunting for Witches" addresses terrorism-fueled paranoia and the British tabloid media's post-911 Islam-phobia, while "Uniform" examines cookie-cutter youth culture. The bitter "Where Is Home?" looks at racism from a personal perspective -- Okereke's Nigerian parents immigrated to England before he was born in Liverpool 25 years ago (his father is a molecular biologist, his mother a midwife) -- and makes no attempt to disguise his second-generation protagonist's frustration ("In every headline, we are reminded that this is not home for us") and rage ("I want to stamp on the face of every young policeman / To break the fingers of every old judge").

Party music this is not. Even the sound has evolved, thanks to producer-remixer Garret "Jacknife" Lee, who has worked with U2, Snow Patrol, Kasabian and Bjork. There's less of the jittery, fidgety funk built on staccato guitars and disco drum beats and more synths, strings and processed sounds. Like the band's mood, the album's textures are darker.

Calling from Lausanne, Switzerland, during the band's 13-country European tour, Okereke says, "As a band, we became confident about what it is we wanted to say, and that will only come after you've made your first record."

Some critics have suggested that the new album's weightier tone is about the band's difficulties after "something glorious" happened to them after making "Silent Alarm."

"To be honest, we were always skeptical about the nature of success or certainly how it's presented in the U.K.," Okereke says lightly. "You grow up to be skeptical of people that are famous or successful -- you can almost feel the shame of that sort of thing. It wasn't like we'd suddenly become jaded at the end of 2005. I think we were already very cynical about what was happening before it happened, but you want to cling to some sort of artistic integrity. That's how we got through it, really. I don't think this second record's a more somber affair because we've become jaded by our success. It's a more somber affair because of the issues we're talking about on the record."

"Silent Alarm" had its serious moments -- "Helicopter" and "Pioneers" critique the Iraq war; "Price of Gas," its political roots and environmental consequences. There were plentiful dark lyrics set to uplifting melodies and, Okereke says, "a real unclear, unfocused energy or tension -- that's what the first record was supposed to be about. I thought, lyrically, I couldn't really rely on that again, and I wanted [the new album] to feel like a document of where my head was at now."

As for the new album's dramatically different sound, Okereke says he could live happily without ever hearing another reference to " 'spiky guitars' or 'angular punk funk.' Musically, there were so many guitar bands coming out in the U.K. that were doing a similar thing to what we were doing, I felt really dislocated with that whole punk-funk thing. That was the last thing we wanted to do with this record. We don't want to just be rehashing ourselves."

Ourselves would be Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack (they've known each other since school days a decade ago), drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes. Forming in 2002 and taking the Bloc Party name a year later, they made an indie single, "She's Hearing Voices," that they thrust into the hands of Radio One DJ Steve Lamacq at a Franz Ferdinand/Domino Records party. Lamacq played it and had the band record a live session for his show. "Silent Alarm," which mixed earnest ballads, dance tracks and a handful of political commentaries, arrived a year later.


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