Before indie-rock Tumblr girls obsessed over Arctic Monkeys, there was Bloc Party. Effortless, provocative, innovative and distinct, Bloc Party is by far my favorite indie-rock band. In fact, their 2008 Intimacy was my first real favorite album — they just have a way of modernizing the gloomy yet beautifully poetic sound of The Smiths in a modern and slightly more electronic way. Given that my love for Bloc Party is still very much alive, you can imagine my disappointment when I first listened to Hymns.
I hated it. I thought it was basic, try-hard and vaguely reminiscent of something I heard before. However, I then realized that for the past hour I had been streaming the wrong album. I was, in fact, listening to their failed 2012 electronic mess of an album, Four. For a solid hour I was beside myself — a visible pile of tears may or may not have surrounded me in the middle of Espresso Royale. I couldn’t understand why Kele Okereke and the rest of Bloc Party went on a three-year hiatus and suffered through the perils of a lineup change, only to came back with a sub-par album. I was devastated. Confused. Heartbroken.
Luckily, thanks to iTunes (Spotify, you suck), I eventually listened to Hymns. Compared to Four, Hymns is a drastic improvement as a whole. Inspired by religious memorabilia found in his parents’ home, Okereke attempts to make this album a modern day religious gospel by masking his somewhat religiously fueled lyrics with overpowering instrumentals.
Whether you like Bloc Party or not, it’s inarguable that their sound is unlike any other indie-rock band’s — they have an ability to create their own genre within a genre. Yes, it’s indie-rock, but it’s more than that. Electronic beats overtake each track with underlying gospel, jazz and new wave elements popping up when you least expect it — resulting in a sound that, when you hear a song playing, can only be identified as Bloc Party.
This unique sound is pushed to its limits in all 15 tracks on Hymns. Violins are electronically warped, each guitar riff never appears to resemble the last and Okereke’s DJ sound mixing past is put on full display. The listening experience is never unenjoyable, you never want to press next and to play Hymns on a loop for the rest of time is a distinct possibility — but this in and of itself is a problem.
I can play this album non-stop, time and time again and never tire of it because it has a way of fading into the background. It’s noise, but it’s pleasant noise. It’s soothing yet predictable. It doesn’t stir any emotions in me. It doesn’t make me want more from Bloc Party.
Fundamentally, the problem with Hymns is that the balance between sound and lyrics is heavily skewed in favor of sound. For example, “Only He Can Heal Me” is a catchy song — the distinct heartbeat rhythm that overtakes the song makes for a great listen, but you’re so caught up in the the sound that the lyrics easily lose when at battle with the beat. Much of the album is like this — the lyrics fade into the background of the noise. Only two songs really prove otherwise; “Into the Earth” and “Exes” both lack heavy electronic beats.
“Into the Earth” is the most stripped down song on the album — the dominating sound is the distinctive guitar chords that fluctuate between staccato plucks and smooth riffs, a departure from the mostly electronic basis for the album. With less going on instrumentally, it’s easier for Okereke’s lyrics to actually be heard — the problem is that what we hear isn’t anything noteworthy.
“Exes” is similar to “Into the Earth” in its seemingly simplistic sound — the main focus of the song is the lyrics with a mellow, smooth backdrop of sound. Okereke croons “To all the exes / That I left behind / These words will fall short / But I must try.” This would be a great chorus if it weren’t actually true; his words do fall short and he barely tries. This isn’t to say that this song, or any song for that matter, is bad. Each song on the album is good and different from what other bands produce.
The album, as a whole, is a pleasant listen, but after you listen to each song over and over again, everything blurs. Although the electronic beats and rhythms are unique, Okereke fails to vocally and lyrically match each song’s distinct instrumentals. The result is 15 songs that sound great but mean very little.