Not being an NME subscriber, I miss a lot of the minutiae of the British music scene (for instance, I don’t keep up with Pete Doherty’s arrests). And some of the bigger stuff. I didn’t know Bloc Party declared an indefinite hiatus shortly after Intimacy came out and I didn’t know until earlier this year that Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke had recorded a solo album, called The Boxer. Also, he came out of the closet somewhere in there. So he’s been a busy dude since Bloc Party’s hiatus – so busy, in fact, that he worked his last name right off and had to release The Boxer under the much simpler moniker “Kele.”
I can’t mince words, though: The Boxer is a fucking mess and it’s a massive leap away from the substance that made Bloc Party’s best work (Silent Alarm) so memorable. Okereke – ahem, Kele – is an amazing singer. Honestly, his vocal abilities are without peer in modern rock. So you can imagine how perplexing it is to hear Kele bury his voice under some of the most annoying vocal effects I’ve heard this side of a Cher album.
I get that Kele wanted to make more of dance record with The Boxer, and I suppose some of this stuff will work well for kids who like to do Ecstasy and lick each other (let the record show that I have no problem with that – just remember to hydrate, kids.) but rest of us might be in out of the cold on this one. Apparently, Kele fell in love with a sample of a phone operator saying, “Please hang up and try again” because he forces it into two songs (“On the Lam” and “The New Rules”, the latter of which might be okay if it weren’t for that pointless sample. “On the Lam”, however, is just awful) and drives me to distraction both times. Samples work when they enhance a song, not when they send you screaming for the “skip” button.
Bloc Party’s stuff always seemed plenty dancey to me, or dancey enough anyway, but it had a certain amount of substance that The Boxer lacks. There are lyrics on this album that would make your emo kid brother cringe, when he could make them out over the schizophrenic beats and overused vocal effects. “Everything You Wanted” could out-trite Incubus, and I don’t even mean mildly-palatable early Incubus. I mean “Anna Molly” Incubus (and hey, it’s honestly okay with me if you like Incubus. But even their staunchest defender cannot make any kind of case for “Anna Molly” being anywhere near clever) and the sad thing is that “Everything You Wanted” is still one of the more melodically enjoyable tracks on the album. Kele can still craft a fine melody, but he buries every single one of them on The Boxer under repeated effects. The result makes me think maybe the former Mr. Okereke isn’t confident that he’ll get to make another solo record so he’s putting every musical idea he’s got left into these ten tracks. As previously mentioned, “On the Lam” is one of the worst offenders of the lot, disguising Kele’s voice to the point that he sounds like a female robot (but not as awesome as the one who serenades you at the end of Portal).
I don’t know if Kele made a deliberate step away from substantive songwriting (this is the guy who gave us “Helicopter” and “Price of Gas”, remember?) for his solo debut, but it sure feels like it to me. And I have a hard time imagining a fan who is gonna hear this and go, “Oh, thank God he’s stopped talking about stuff that matters.” And I don’t mean that every song has to be about war or famine or whatever, but there was a time when “Kele” was Kele Okereke and his music matched the emotional urgency of his lyrics. The Boxer has its tender moments, but they sound film-soundtracky – for the next Bridget Jones movie perhaps – and overproduced.
And then there’s “Tenderoni.” Google that shit if you don’t know what it means. Depending on where you click, you’ll discover that the word is slang for either a sexy underage girl/guy that you know you shouldn’t mess with or just your younger lover. By either definition, it’s entirely possible that several of Shakespeare’s sonnets were aimed squarely at his tenderoni. Kele’s song didn’t impress me much (I think he recycled the melody from an Intimacy track, but I’m too lazy to look up which one) to begin with and then it got to the spelling/singing thing at the end. I don’t know if I’m the only person who feels this way, but any time there’s spelling in a song, that song automatically loses fifty awesome points. Even if my beloved Hold Steady wrote a song that featured a word spelled out in it, I would like it less for the spelling. If you’re interested, the worst case of spelling-in-song that has yet occurred was Fergie’s “Fergilicious”, wherein Fergie actually commits to record the fact that she can’t spell “tasty” (she spells it with an “e” in it. You have all that money and all those people around you and nobody can spellcheck your lyrics?). Getting back to “Tenderoni,” I will say that Kele does a good job of creating a narrator who wants to be both father figure and lover to some lucky kid. I guess that’s good, so long as the song is more cautionary tale than autobiography.
At the end of the day, the nicest thing I can say about The Boxer is that it makes me want to listen to two far superior albums. The first is Bloc Party’s debut, Silent Alarm. That album had substance and musical chops to spare (and real drumming! Yay real drums!) and was catchy from start to finish. The second album is Hot Chip’s One Life Stand, which is a great dance-pop record from people who wield their computers and vocal effects with more nuance and skill than Kele has managed to muster for his solo debut.