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One of the most exhilarating debut albums of the 21st century to date, 2005’s Silent Alarm signaled the arrival of a dynamic band possessed of a big sound and an even bigger conscience. Bloc Party’s acclaimed first full-length proved an incisive document of youthful weariness, disillusion, and socio-political commentary, delivered through soaring, percussive arrangements. Largely due to charismatic frontman Kele Okereke’s earnest lyrics and impassioned vocals showcased on instantly memorable songs such as “Banquet,” “Like Eating Glass,” “Pioneers,” and “This Modern Love,” the London band were quickly anointed darlings of the UK music press and their freshly recruited fans flocked to their sold-out gigs in droves.
The three albums that followed over the next seven years—A Weekend in the City (2007), Intimacy (2008), and Four (2012)—all proved stellar efforts, though none were as sycophantically adored as Silent Alarm. Across the four albums, the band’s progression from razor-sharp, art-punk and guitar-fueled rock inspired songs to more overtly electro-tinged, dancefloor-friendly fare is evident. No great surprise, then, that during the hiatuses between the group’s most recent albums, Okereke solidified his adoption of synths and drum machines by crafting two house and breakbeat indebted solo LPs, 2010’s The Boxer and 2014’s Trick.
Upon even the most cursory of listens, the midtempo soundscapes of Bloc Party’s fifth album, Hymns, is light years removed from the frenetic, visceral urgency of Silent Alarm. In parts, and with the exception of Okereke’s signature yelps and yearning vocals coupled with Russell Lissack’s experimental guitar work, the record sounds as if it was made by quite a different band.
Which makes sense, considering that drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes left the band in 2013 and 2015 respectively, and have since been replaced by Louise Bartle (drums) and Justin Harris (bass, keyboards), though Bartle joined the band after recording sessions wrapped. Of his newest bandmates, Okereke recently told The Guardian that “It’s amazing how they’ve reinvigorated our existing catalogue. I think we have a different groove now.”
Not surprisingly with a title like Hymns, the album contains spiritual undertones throughout, though its thematic focus revolves around faith, devotion and redemption of non-religious varieties. Boasting a rolling chant that calls to mind Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” and is sonically reminiscent of ‘90s-era Depeche Mode in its latter half, the hypnotic “Only He Can Heal Me” explores the power of a lover’s unique healing powers. The most straight-ahead rocker among the eleven tracks here, the blues guitar-soaked “The Good News” finds a lovelorn Okereke seeking solace in troubled times, conceding that “I used to find my answers / In the gospels of St. John / But now I find them at the bottom / Of this shot glass.”
A palpable sense of regret about opportunities missed can be discerned, most notably within the two solemn tracks that conclude the album. On the hushed ballad “Exes,” Okereke apologizes to the lovers he’s done wrong and may have treated too casually, aiming to reassure them that despite their ephemeral time together, he still found meaning in the connections he formed with them. The subdued closing track “Living Lux” could be interpreted as another ode to a love affair gone wrong or perhaps even a final goodbye of sorts to former bandmate Tong, as suggested in the chorus that inquires, “Don't you remember? / How this began? / You begged me for a chance / Don't waste your sorry / No, don't waste your goodbyes.”
Two songs in particular emerge as the unequivocal highlights and qualify as some of the strongest material Bloc Party has crafted to date. The melodic, propulsive groove of “So Real” is arguably the album’s finest moment, with the band allowing the gorgeous guitar and keyboard-driven rhythm to swell and shine. On the somber “Different Drugs,” Okereke desperately contemplates whether a drug exists that can cure his fractured relationship, though he concedes that the “temptation to vacate” through artificial highs actually precludes he and his partner from finding resolution.
Despite an otherwise gratifying listen overall, one track falls painfully flat. Ironically, that dubious honor goes to the skippable album opener and lead single “The Love Within,” which trudges along atop a rather insipid guitar loop that could easily be mistaken for lazily constructed synths. Adding injury to insult are the song’s surprisingly clichéd lyrics, which include Okereke describing love as “sweeter than any drug” and languidly inquiring “So do you want to get high?” without offering any convincing reasons why anyone would wish to partake. Fortunately, the forgettable moments like this one are rare across the entire song suite.
Diehard Bloc Party fans will likely approach and absorb Hymns with stubborn skepticism. But here’s to hoping that a fair number of them can see beyond such rigidness of expectation and appreciate this solid addition to the canon of one of the 21st century’s most consistently enchanting bands. Indeed, Hymns seems an album that will surely continue to reveal its less obvious charms with time and repeated spins.