It’s been four fairly tumultuous years for Bloc Party after the band’s fourth LP, the appropriately titled Four, failed to recreate the sound behind the exciting, guitar-driven rock that had drawn fans in with the phenomenal Silent Alarm. Four sounded like a band of Bloc Party wannabes, a band that had some idea of the theory behind the band’s most famous and acclaimed work but couldn’t quite achieve the spark that Bloc Party seemingly so easily did on their first two albums.
Following the departure of veteran and founding members Matt Tong (drummer) and Gordon Moakes (bassist), Bloc Party are back with a new lineup and a new sound. HYMNS bases itself on the band’s previous electronic experiments (such as the excellent A Weekend In The City track ‘Flux’ as well as the band’s third album, Intimacy), coupling them with more religous themes of faith and spirituality as opposed to the themes of sex and vulnerability in their previous work, all grounded on the same deeply personal and often awkward events surrounding lead singer Kele Okereke’s life.
HYMNS is an album that actually sees Bloc Party return to an old formula that previously worked remarkably well with A Weekend In The City: Centering the album around a handful of themes (terrorism, fear, dissatisfaction and isolation with AWINTC, faith, spirituality and selfless love in HYMNS), the band has been able to release their most consistent, cohesive material since that very album, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to their best work.
The album kicks off with the fairly bland ‘The Love Within’, a track with terribly awkward lyrics (“The love within is moving upwards / Sweeter than any drug” and the contrasting and repeated line “Don’t you want to get high?”) laid out over fairly generic beats with very little in the vein of interesting or surprising instrumentation on the song. Fortunately, the song ends up being one of the album’s lowest points and not an indicator of the rest of the album, as almost every other track on HYMNS is quite better than it. The album’s following track, the haunting ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, where a choir constantly repeats and almost gasps the song’s title track throughout, is a genuinely inventive track that also sports much better lyrics from Okereke, as he describes his search for his one and only saviour, the one that will finally heal his wounds.
The album’s first half sees Bloc Party fully embracing their newly found sound and themes, sporting three great tracks (the aforementioned ‘Only He Can Heal Me’, the more rythmical ‘So Real’ as well as the spacious, vulnerable ‘Fortress’) amongst a couple of duds, including the Gorillaz-esque ‘The Good News’, as well as the overly-long and honestly quite whiney ‘Different Drugs’, while in the second half, having already seemingly exhausted their themes, Bloc Party just kind of try to remake the first half of the album, resulting in fairly boring and derivative songs (‘Into The Earth’, ‘My True Name’, ‘Exes’) where Okereke often sounds more preachy and holier-than-thou than simply honest. The second half of the album is almost saved entirely by the excellent, catchy, ‘Virtue’, a song where Kele’s emotional vocal work coupled with a great beat lead to the song’s best album as well as ‘Living Lux’, a fairly minimalistic, synthesizer-based song reminiscent of some of their earlier work (reminding me in particular of ‘This Modern Love’ and ‘Two Weeks’ from the band’s debut) which serves as a genuinely great ending to the album.
Ultimately, HYMNS is a work that is completely consistent and cohesive, but it’s an album that is just consistently ok to good. It’s an album where the band clearly defined its themes and sound to aim for, but seemingly ran out of ideas halfway through developing it, showcasing some flashes of greatness that still, nonetheless, don’t quite reach their previous work. Seeing as how Bloc Party are, at this point, almost entirely a new band, this is still a promising work. Fans of the band’s previous albums will be disappointed by the change in sound but, to anyone with a craving for spiritual, electronic music and to previous fans with an open mind, HYMNS might surprised you.
ALBUM GRADE: B