Bloc Party

A Weekend in the City

(Vice Records; 2007)

By Conrad Amenta | 26 January 2007

The worst song on Bloc Party's 2005 breakthrough debut, Silent Alarm, was "Price of Gasoline," where singer Okereke most judgmentally and blindly threw his hat in the direction of the political commentary ring. On that song he fumbled by trying to conflate into a few short, inarticulate verses the complementary themes of apathy and personal responsibility that had arisen, in part, as a result of wartime London's blooming anti-war counterculture. He wasn't wrong to try, at least no more wrong than Green Day was with their American Idiot (2004), but the vehicle of his admonition did half the work of his detractors to discredit his own argument. Tellingly, Bloc Party's name, as described by the band, "was not intended to be an allusion to [a political party]; the absence of a 'k' is purely for aesthetics." So an album of willfully adolescent melodrama seemed "party" to the depiction of anti-war demonstrators as uninformed political tourists alleviating their own liberal guilt complexes by whitewashing over the issues' complexity and participating in meaningless protest for posture's sake.

With that in mind, A Weekend in the City's truncated thesis should be a step in the right direction. From Okereke's deep bag of mildly accusatory lyrics, teenage malaise lyrics, and frustrated angst lyrics, one can pull any number of statements that might be read politically, but the same could be said for statements pulled from a random selection of Bloc Party's primary audience. Teenagers think that their feelings lie at the center of the universe. So, apparently, does Okereke. This is an album about that particular brand of self-centeredness and how it means this coming weekend is going to be the most dramatic/most alienating/most fun, like, ev'ar.

A Weekend in the City's problems begin much simpler, however: Okereke now sings instead of barking, and, well, oops on him. The album opens with his voice vamping an intro to "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)" (brackets!), a ballpark approximation of a castrato Nick Cave or Scott Walker hoping, I assume, to provide lines like "East London is a vampire / It sucks the joy right out of me" with an appropriate level of dread. The excessive style employed, the crooning and the dense production, are immediately noticeable if only because it makes us nostalgic for the antithetically strident, confident drum intro to Silent Alarm's opener "Like Eating Glass." Still, benefit of the doubt suggests the tonal switch sort of makes sense: if Bloc Party want to be as anthemic and calculatedly universal as U2, then Okereke's voice may as well emulate the gravitas of the suffering and wonder he portrays.

It's just that he's got some dreadful lines liberally littered throughout. On "Waiting For the 7.18," an otherwise tight and beautiful song in the style of Silent Alarm's "Blue Light" or "This Modern Love," the soaring this means everything adolescence for which the band is known meanders even more than usual on wasted lines like "Grinding your teeth / in the middle of the night / Let the sadness off those molars / Spend all your spare time / trying to escape / with crosswords and Sudoku." The epic chorus of "Let's drive to Brighton on the weekend" and sampled birds chirping imply I shouldn't be taking it so seriously, but then there's a quavering wall of surreally heroic guitars destroying any subtlety behind the sentiment with the hyper-emotion of an M83 song. It's either needlessly serious, or the worst-told inside joke I've ever heard.

"The Prayer," A Weekend's masturbatory first single, epitomizes most of the band's least palatable tendencies. A clapping/stomping intro that apes the intro to "Price of Gasoline," a quizzically persistent baritone humming, and a seemingly drawn lot of moody samples and whooshes backdrop an otherwise enjoyable little pop song with a nice chorus. Okereke then proceeds to emote all over the thing, singing, "Standing on the packed dance floor / Our bodies thrown in time / Silent on the weekdays / Tonight I claim what's mine." This is sub-Saves the Day at best, the stuff spur-of-the-moment tattoos are made of, which in itself would be fine if it wasn't also an overproduced mess very short on substance and tall on presentation, magnifying each deficiency.

But it's "Uniform" that slips dangerously close to the band's political sins. It begins by dumping this cinderblock of a line on our toes: "There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall / All the young people look the same / Wearing their masks of cool and indifference / Commerce dressed up as rebellion." Because A Weekend subscribes to the tunnel vision of adolescence as its creed and driving force, it willfully overlooks the irony of a currently fashionable band releasing this kind of statement on Vice Records, whose sister outfit Vice Magazine is hugely influential in the fashion-driven market of "masks of cool and indifference." More importantly, Okereke unwittingly sets up a fitting metaphor: if the band is going to confine itself to the figurative mall, then it'll always be easy for them to find something to poke a finger at, most of all themselves. Hearing a band that sounds this commercial and with lyrics this self-involved sing about the inability of the vapid consumerist to embrace a broader perspective of the world is like listening to your hippie parents tell you to stay away from drugs. Bloc Party is basically asking that we not be like them, but that we listen to their "commerce dressed up like rebellion" anyway; lyrics like these normalize a Western kid's burgeoning superiority complex by supposing that if one participates in Okereke's criticism of the kids in the mall, then you can't be included among them and you've preempted facing that criticism yourself. By the time the song blasts into its robot-voiced, simulated explosion, up-tempo second act, spitting "well I was brave / (and unique), / intelligent / (a snowflake)," I felt like a hippie parent myself, trying to make sense of bad teenaged poetry's directionless angst.

I'll admit that I was on the bandwagon when Silent Alarm was released. But when I saw them live, their carefully stacked arrangements tumbled into clutter. Played too quickly, the atmospheric texture and sound that songs like "Banquet" and "So Here We Are" depended upon became an indistinguishable mash. As disappointed as I was at the time, I grit my teeth when wondering how songs from A Weekend In the City's ultra-slick veneer might translate live. Even Silent Alarm Remixed (2005) sounds more organic in places. "Waiting for the 7.18," "On," and "Sunday" are elevated to Zooropa's (1993) levels of grandiosity, matching the drama of the record's sentiment and tone. But songs like "Uniform," "The Prayer," and "Where is Home" are transformed into mud-spattered cluster-fucks, their primary (and viable) pop arrangements obscured by electronic skitters, hokey sound effects, processed vocals and ethereal washes that add nothing. Bloc Party are too early into their career to be relying on studio gimmickry for invigoration; this is the stuff of Bush's The Science of Things (1999). These sounds, contrasted with their overexcited performance that night, lead me to believe they've been given too many production tools too soon. If these extraneous layers were stripped one by one, I imagine we'd be left with some underdeveloped, average-at-best songs.

I can admit that Bloc Party are probably just a product of London's snakes-and-ladders music scene, where bands try desperately to create something timelessly epic and the music rags seem more than willing to throw gasoline on the hyperbole's fire. Some songs, like the low maintenance and fun "I Still Remember," have Brit pop roots that may even make one nostalgic for the scene's better days. But the absurdity of all this forced magnitude and pathetic whining just drags. Picking out hypocrisies and blanket statements sort of feels redundant and unfair; after all, we don't review Simple Plan for the reason that pointing out their blinkered narcissism would be less than insightful. But somehow Bloc Party have slipped under our collective radar for big, noisy, commercial acts and now we're left to ponder why any of us are supposed to care about what Okereke is doing this weekend.