On January 29th, 2016, alternative rock and pop group Bloc Party released their fifth album entitled Hymns.
Bloc Party is perhaps best known for their critically acclaimed debut album Silent Alarm, which many consider one of the quintessential indie rock albums of the 2000s. While Silent Alarm’s songs ranged from raw and rapid to sonic and soaring, the group has changed their sound in various other ways since then. They have dabbled in softer rock as well as electronic music. This newest album Hymns has far and away marked the greatest change. It is almost purely an alternative pop album. It is only minimally rock. Of course, this does not automatically make it a weak Bloc Party album. What does make it a weak Bloc Party album are the often dull and sometimes irritating instrumental choices on many of the tracks and the overall artificiality. However, there are some redeeming moments with the powerful and creative melodies which exhibiting some true passion. Ultimately, the album varies wildly in quality from track to track and sometimes even from verse to verse.
Hymns begins with “The Love Within.” The song starts off with rather ethereal synths, a smacking bass drum, and a reference to one of Bloc Party’s earlier songs—“The Prayer”—with the lyrics “Lord, give me grace and dancing feet…” The song is perfectly harmless until the second half of the first verse arrives. An obnoxious, nearly dissonant synth dominates, and it quickly becomes unpleasant to listen to. It is a baffling songwriting choice. Thankfully, “The Love Within’s” chorus has arguably one of Bloc Party’s most infectious melodies. So, much like the album as a whole, this song is a mixed bag.
Perhaps the strongest song on the album is the second track: “Only He Can Heal Me.” The song begins with the piano playing a deep, ominous chord over and over with Gregorian chant-esque background vocals. The main verse vocal melody soon joins in, and it is just as catchy and inventive as the chorus of “The Love Within.” “Only He Can Heal Me’s” chorus melody is equally powerful. An ambient, chilling guitar solo completes the wonderfully weird picture that is this song.
Sadly, the remaining tracks of Hymns produce only apathy or sheer disappointment.
Songs like “So Real,” “Fortress,” “Exes,” and “Living Lux,” all fall flat with unremarkable, unmemorable melodies and structures. They each have a few moments suggesting the possibilities of epic, grand conclusions, but these simply do not occur. The songs fizzle out before accomplishing anything impactful. The potential squandered on each of these tracks leaves an indifferent impression.
However, “The Good News” and “Into the Earth” are plainly frustrating. Both songs assume a superficial folk-soul sound that seems entirely forced and unnatural, especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the album’s sound. “The Good News” takes on this identity with a generic southern rock twang and talk of going “down to the water.” “Into the Earth” does so with cheesy pseudo-spoken-word verses and syncopated, choppy chords. Many may claim these tracks feel so extremely shallow and insincere just because they are so outside Bloc Party’s typical repertoire of genres, but upon deeper inspection, it is difficult to imagine a band performing them without producing a comparable aura of artificiality.
Before Hymns was recorded, bassist Gordon Moakes and celebrated drummer Matt Tong left Bloc Party. Many will attribute the weakness of this album to their departure. While this may not be a completely groundless claim, I am not convinced their presence would have saved Hymns. What this album lacks first and foremost is genuineness. Some melodies occasionally bring moments of sincere passion that make the album worth listening to at least once, but most tracks monotonously meander and the others maddeningly masquerade, tarnishing the work overall.
In fact, this is the problem that lies at the core of most music. It matters not what genre is performed by whom. What matters is if that the final product feels truthful. In that truth is where passion shines and where listeners connect.
But I digress. Bloc Party has not lost themselves completely with Hymns, but they are certainly in danger of doing so. Listen to Hymns for those songs in which they are hanging on to their passion, and heed the warnings of the false-sounding others.