Yes, the new Bloc Party album starts off with a couple of tracks (“Ares” and “Mercury”) that are almost annoyingly effects-laden, self-sampling, MIA-style noisefests. I hated those tracks, and as a result, the album, the first few times I heard them. But once I had time to sit down and listen to Intimacy a couple of time all the way through, I really started to appreciate it. If you consider where Bloc Party started (Silent Alarm was fucking fantastic, yeah?) and where they went next (Weekend in the City was Bloc Party’s Plans), it’s hard to deny Intimacy the minimal credit of being a step in the right direction. I’d go you a bit better than that though and say Intimacy is a very compelling pop/rock album by one of Britain’s few really promising bands (they’ve got a lot to live up to on that side of the Atlantic – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, James Blunt – just kidding about that last one) now that the Libertines are toast and The Arctic Monkeys don’t seem to be up to much.
Like The Airing of Grievances by Titus Andronicus, Intimacy takes a couple of trips before you can really sort out the songs from the wall of noise. Some folks don’t like having to sit with a record that long, and that’s fine. But for my money, I’d much rather have an album that works better for me over time than one that’s good the first time I hear it and really irritates me later (for example: Golden Delicious by Mike Doughty or 11th Hour by Del the Funky Homosapien). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I was deeply underwhelmed by The National’s Boxer the first time I heard it and now, I’d like to go back in time and kick the shit out of the me that was underwhelmed by that album a year ago. What was I thinking? Boxer is fucking great, Matt Berninger is not only one of the best songwriters working right now but I would murder Bill O’Reilly for his voice.
This post is about The National, isn’t it? It isn’t? Fuck.
Back to the topic at hand, then: Bloc Party and Intimacy. (But seriously: listen to The National.)
“Ares” and “Mercury” are loud, pounding-drum rock songs chopped to bits and pasted back together (although “Mercury” is held together by some tasty horn parts). Kele Okereke’s voice is versatile, very British, and sometimes grating as usual and, on “Mercury”, he uses it to its fullest to wrap up unlucky love with the state of the world: “this is not the time/ the time to start a new love/ this is not the time/ the time to sign a lease”, he sings, as if the romantic environment were also damaged by the downturn of the global economy. It’s a good line and it sets the mood for the album – in case you can’t guess, Kele Okereke is discouraged.
Most of the songs on Intimacy have something to do with death or love or the death of a loved one. “Biko” was apparently someone close to Okereke who died of cancer and “Signs” also discusses the death of someone close. While “Mercury,” “One Month Off,” and “Trojan Horse” are all about the disintegration of relationships. Bloc Party performs a pretty dance-able style of music so all this depression is set to some pretty nice beats (Pitchfork dinged “Signs” for basically being too beautiful, but fuck those guys; it’s a good song. Remember, this is the same website that was “baffled” by Evil Urges) and the overall feeling is one of listening to a really great pop album in the left headphone while Vincent Price reads John Berryman to you in the right. Somewhere in the middle, Intimacy becomes a unique pop album, one that is likely to be underrated because it can be very hard to listen to in places. (If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that Bloc Party are trying to scare off the people who liked Weekend in the City so that they can get back to doing what they do best).
There are plenty of lyrical gems on Intimacy, althought I don’t count the trite “You used to take your watch off/ before we made love” (from “Trojan Horse”) which I can only assume is a holdover from the Weekend in the City days. There’s plenty to counter it, though: “I can be as cruel as you/ fighting fire with fire wood” is one of my favorites from “One Month Off.” I’m also particularly enamored of the following too-beautiful bits from “Signs”: “I see signs/ all the time/ that you’re not dead/you’re sleeping/ I’ll believe in anything/ that brings you back home to me.” The lyrics on Intimacy tell the sad tale of a man out of place in relationships (“I’m sleeping with people I don’t even like,” Okereke laments on “Mercury”) and finding no solace in the wider world around him. In a lot of ways, it’s a perfect album for the summer of 2008. Any hope for something better is placed in the future – today’s not got a lot going for it.
In many ways, Bloc Party have crafted an Armed Forces for the 21st century: an album that can’t separate its political frustration from its romantic/sexual frustration. The winner is the listener (come on; if you can’t dig Armed Forces, you can’t dig anything), although Intimacy is far less accessible than Elvis Costello’s masterpiece. Still and all, if you listen long enough, you’ll be rewarded. Whether or not you want to make the effort is up to you. (Insert joke about your Intimacy issues here)