Before we begin, let us pray.
God give me strength
Lord, give me Your strength
I feel weak and helpless right now
I’m not sure how much more I can take
Whatever I have done to deserve this
Whatever I can do to end this
Please Lord, take over and let it end
In Your name, I pray
Bloc Party, like many bands that partook in the post-punk revivalist movement, laid it all out there, flaws and all. They clung to their politically charged convictions and experimented with rock traditions, combining electronic tinges with eclectic production choices. Their songs spoke of divisive issues like scapegoat-style media coverage, growing economic crises, and racial prejudices, among others. It was multilayered music whose structure was unconventional and whose predictability was loose at best. But all good things must come to an end, and Bloc Party was quick to prove they were no exception.
Their five-part discography tells the story of musical degradation, transforming a post-punk band into one self-described as an “alternative dance” outfit. With only half of the band behind Silent Alarm remaining, lead singer Kele Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack recruited bassist Justin Harris and famed YouTube drummer Louise Bartle to resuscitate an otherwise dying project. The result is HYMNS, a dance-pop record whose religious overtones are so inappropriately blatant that any semblance of self-awareness feels lost amidst the rigidly straightforward delivery.
Now, to give credit where credit is due, not every moment of HYMNS is difficult to stomach. “Into the Earth” and “My True Name” could reasonably be found somewhere on the back half of Bloc Party’s discography. On these tracks, Kele’s vocal style is most similar to his usual forcefulness, a much-welcomed presence in lieu of the previous six songs’ flat, disingenuous delivery. On “My True Name”, the synth notes are deep and chilling, aiding to the somber tone that the album fails to achieve for the vast majority of its runtime. But for every moment on HYMNS that could almost be described as “alright”, there’s a dozen more that range from monotonously uninspired to nauseatingly embarrassing.
The lowest point on the record is easily “Fortress”, a sexually charged ballad of clumsy imagery and uncomfortably literal descriptions of Kele’s innermost yearnings. It’s not clear why Kele felt a song with lyrics like “Our bodies ache for one another/I just can’t wait till we’re alone, mmm mmm” should be the natural follow-up to “Only He Can Heal Me”, “So Real”, and “The Good News”, but it makes for a jarringly atonal thematic trip. While not much is known of the specifics of the recording process for HYMNS, the following is likely an exact account:
Kele: Guys, I’ve run out of ideas for HYMNS. I know we’re only a few songs into the recording process but I’ve exhausted every ounce of Christian imagery I can think of.
Russel “Last Man Standing” Lissack: I wish I could help you but I’m a little swamped perfecting these 4/4 time signatures.
Kele: Justin, Louise? Now’s your time to shine. We need more gospel-esque songs, but I’ve already talked about river cleansings, the Garden of Eden, and the good word. That’s all I’ve got so far. Do you guys have any ideas for what we could add?
Justin Harris: Sex.
Kele: Perfect. I can describe sex in vivid detail. Mm, but I need it to still retain that sense of poeticism, you know?
Famed YouTube Drummer Louise Bartle: Well, you could describe the sheets as your armor. That’s pretty Biblical, right?
Kele: No, but the sheets could be my fortress. Now that fits into our “hymn” concept.
Famed YouTube Drummer Louise Bartle: Ooh, and you could sing the chorus in a lush falsetto to really accentuate the seductiveness of it all.
Kele: Better yet, I’ll sing the entire thing in my one-noted falsetto inflection. Thanks fellow members of Bloc Party, this has been a huge help.
Yes, Kele Okereke sings the entirety of “Fortress” in a shaky, whispered falsetto. But this is just one of copious instances on HYMNS that feel like one idea was agreed upon, and then sustained for a full-length song’s amount. There’s never advancement. There’s no growth between one verse and another. Bloc Party takes the idea of “ad nauseam” and pushes it to its limits, building songs whose instrumentation remains unchanged for minutes at a time. Compare the rudimentary drumming of “Only He Can Heal Me” to the rapid-fire drumming found on “Like Eating Glass”. Listen to the ways the guitar and vocals play off each other in “Pioneers” and then feel the sterile isolation of the band members on “Virtue” or “Different Drugs”.
There’s no comparison, because this isn’t the same band. Yes, the composition of the band has changed, but that doesn’t excuse it from being judged against their previous outputs. Had Kele envisioned a smooth transition from indie rock headliners to sanctimonious dance-funk group, he should have renamed the band. To add this to the discography is to sully an already deteriorating list of albums far beyond what anyone could have predicted. At this point, “Bloc Party” has become the family pet with a terminal disease. You want them to pull through, but when all signs point towards death, it’s best to pull the plug before anyone suffers more than they already have. And after over ten years of material, we’ve all suffered quite a bit.
– Zach W.