Top critical review
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on 23 October 2008
The low-key arrival of Bloc Party's third album Intimacy sees the band getting on with the complex business of turning out another solid and intermittently excellent record. One might think this would be a tricky thing to pull off; the band's debut Silent Alarm was as close to a classic as any up-and-coming seriously-minded indie band these days could manage to pull off, while follow-up A Weekend In The City was a brave but difficult record, attempting to chronicle the woes and disaffections of the UK's teens; seeing Kele Okoreke perhaps unwillingly placing himself as the appointed spokemen for the hug-a hoodie generation. Then came standalone single Flux, a freaky steath-attack of a song which initially sounded for all the world like the band attempting to knock off one of those hideously generic Ibiza trance anthems that seemingly never stop clogging up the airwaves; albeit with with a giant robot monster-themed video and lyrics about arguing with your father. Basshunter was perhaps left quaking in his boots, as were Bloc Party's fans, perhaps fearing a fullblown excursion into pop-dance territory.
Thankfully, Intimacy doesn't signpost a selling-out to the mainstream, or an out-and-out attempt to go far off into experimental lands. Opener Ares comes lumbering in on a gargantuan loping drumbeat that's either borrowed from Tomorrow Never Knows or the Chemical's Setting Son, with Kele barking various non sequiters over clattering beats and looped vocal squawks, sounding not unlike a cross between Mark E Smith and a demented Damon Albarn after too much time spent hanging around with monkeys. Then there's first single Mercury, which either continues Bloc Party's descent into fully fledged art-dance-rock or just sounds like a bad Fatboy Slim single - proving that if you repeat something often enough at least people will remember it, whether they want to or not. Repeated listens however draw out the detail which has thus far been one of the bands strong points; rhythms borrowed from reggae dancehall (something else Radiohead have quite bewilderingly done of late), garbled lyrics about planetary orbits and waking up in basketball courts, and weird, off-kilter string surges. It's a difficult track, but doesn't fail to intrigue.
Halo takes us back to the helter-skelter, jerky-indie territory of Silent Alarm, and is as furious as we have come to expect from Bloc Party's faster numbers, but fails to advance the band's sound to anything radically new. It's been mentioned that this is Bloc Party's breakup album and many of the lyrics do seem to deal with themes of collapsed or broken-down relationships - the glitch-ballad Biko follows this trend, and might call to mind an ancient Peter Gabriel song in its title but is closer to Placebo in its general tone, a band Bloc Party are coming close to resembling in their musical outlook.
Signs is a gorgeous number, glockenspiel-led, twinkly and downbeat with hints of Bjork and Sigur Ros about it. Intimacy is very much a record of two parts - fast songs and slow ones, some dancey and others not (again, Placebo are a band who have wrung considerable mileage out of such an approach). After Signs, the band wrench us out of the quiet mountains and fling us back into the turmoil with the next track, which perhaps explains why previous single Flux isn't on Intimacy, since One Month Off is another rattling beat-driven indie-dance meltdown sounding virtually the same as Flux, except not quite so trancey.
Its about this time that some of the album's potential flaws begin to become apparent; made up as it is out of skittery, lysergic dance numbers and the punkier, thrashier songs the band have become so good at, this unfortunately shows that Bloc Party might be in danger of showing their limitations a little and repeating themselves a bit too much. Another sore-point is Kele's tendency to repeat almost exactly the same vocal melodies he's previously employed on other tracks, just rearranged in a different order. Maybe nitpicking, but for someone familiar with all their b-sides might notice a fair amount of repetition here and there. To illustrate this musical repetition point, Better Than Heaven goes on to conclude itself by vitually repeating the janglesome guitar motif from I Still Remember, only this time notched up to three times the speed - although the album does go out on a high with Ion Square, a gentle yet epic slow-burner which almost manages to eclipse the emotive likes of So Here We Are.
Again, Intimacy makes for a difficult listen. Having moved away from the generalised angst and disaffection of Silent Alarm and the broadly political concept record that was A Weekend In The City, one can't help but get the feeling that despite draping their songs in dancey apparel and remaining lyrically obtuse, Bloc Party may have regressed a little. Here's a band who spent their last two albums hitting out at US foreign policy, the world fuel crisis, and scaremongering about the fear of terrorism in the UK - unfortunately, Intimacy begins to resemble yet another indie album that will see millions over-analyse the cryptic subtext of lyrics which usually amount little more than variations on `my girlfriend/boyfriend dumped me, so now I'm angry/bitter/melancholic?'
Despite all these criticisms, Intimacy still comes out the other end sounding like a very strong album by a still immensely-promising outfit. Anyone unfamiliar with their earlier work - and those who are - will find a lot to appreciate here. Bloc Party are still a young band and perhaps still have quite a way to go before they can truly stand a chance of being up there with some of the greats. By doing things their way, this'll do for now.