BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD: Where is it, Anyway?
Cambridge music troupe Black Country, New Road made internet waves with the release of their searing debut album in February of this year. In the midst of the frenzied acclaim came a rush to categorize a band that sounded all at once nostalgic, zeitgeisty and ahead of the curve. It was firstly difficult not to find kinship with the burgeoning UK post-punk scene (a genre-revival benefiting from welcome defibrillations of fuzz and heft) and fellow Speedy Wunderground alumni. But BC,NR exists somewhere closer to home than the arithmeticarnival of Black Midi and further into the surreal than the comparatively bouncy Squid.
I believe that if you're trying to locate the captivating heart of the band's pulsing arena, its coordinates are charted by the writing of singer and guitarist, Isaac Wood. The band name's cryptic reference to the industrial West Midlands is aesthetically serendipitous, but ultimately inconclusive. What I find more intriguing is the name's discovery in a random Wikipedia page generator. By diving headfirst into a pixelated Babel, the group accidentally but appropriately circumscribed a musical sphere into which contemporary art and culture are sucked. One that sometimes sounds like picking up a handful of the internet. Our scrollaholic lifestyle is only sometimes acknowledged on For the first time but its release into a quarantined world and use of Unsplash B-roll in promotional images are only its initial hints towards the internet's car-crash synesthesia. The record might be a snarled, analogue and breathy beast full of head-nods and yelps but the world that the writing draws is distinctly now and distinctly digital.
In the sonic sweep of For the First Time, Wood and co. catalogue a kitschy, yet sinister lexicon for the iPhone age. If your source of music consumption is something as eclectic as Spotify, then Miles Davis might come barging in next to Ian Curtis on a queue bred upon exploration. Fittingly, on a BC,NR song you're just as likely to hear a Van Morisson-esque vocal lilt over the electronic fuzz of Flaming Lips as you are to hear a Bukowskian line pounded beneath a demonic martiality that Gira would be proud of.
And in an era defined by the memeification of information, it would be a missed opportunity for any burgeoning writer not to profit from the postmodern potential of reality's digitized hijacking.
In an early interview, Wood said this: 'It's not enough to just pretend like those boundaries don't exist, it's more about accurately portraying the emotion of a moment when those boundaries feel like they don't exist, when something someone might deem as low culture, or whatever, becomes a very profound symbol of your state.'
The third act of their best-known song, Sunglasses, sees Wood impersonating a potential partner that is screaming at him to 'Leave Kanye out of' whatever argument they are having. What NME interpreted as an emphatic defence of Kanye West's contemporary significance seems instead, to me, an indicator of exactly what Wood describes above. The sardonic frontier in which the wealthy, white man's girlfriend is tired of his digressions about Kanye is absurd, sure, but hauntingly resonant. Sunglasses, and its protagonist's descent into humdrum hell feels like a central cleft down to which all of the album's ideas tumble and coagulate. A metamorphosis begins in the petri dish of the 'downstairs second living-room TV area', a distinctly middle-class setting that is indicative also of the band's preppy aesthetic they swear is unplanned, and fits snugly around the well-spoken intonation of Wood's lyrics. For some, the band's Guildhall angst is an irritating swirl of colours but I think it lends a uniquely farcical lens to music whose raucous instrumentals vindicate a concrete rage. Sunglasses' severe orchestration only adds to a disturbing irony that feels less like a winking pretence and more the catalysing agent that pulls the recognisable into the same sonic wasteland as the esoteric and forbidding.
In the middle of the same song, an A Day in the Life breakdown sees the protagonist Nutri-bulleted and hyper-aged into a future he wished to avoid. The whole thing is wonderfully cinematic. See: Wood sitting nervously on his girlfriend's settee; match cut to him 15 years later, sitting nervously behind his 'high-tech wrap-around blue-tinted fortress' and putting on a brave face for roadmen. This parasite carried airborne by a screeching sax will transform you, hilariously, into a bloated Audi owner who wants to believe he is invincible.
For the First Time's surreal poetics are yarned to the beat of a primal but infectious musicality that knows precisely when to apply its trained knowledge to atonal arrangements or when to lean back to intuitive grooves and press through to wailing dins. Impressively, and despite the portent of their more foreboding moments, BC,NR often also bring their worlds to a peaceful return like on their debut single, Athens, France. It's a brooding lament of spent time that hyperventilates in the stony ruins of a relationship but its broken architecture reveals a distant astral horizon. You see, there is always a way out, 'Like the new road built out of Black Country ground', it just seems to twinkle always out of reach. That line is the first of a few references dotted on the album to the eponymous Black Country and its exit, though Wood never truly specifies where or what that place is. Here, the song's musical lattice suggests the New Road as a Byzantine highway that has just as many horn-whipped and smog-choked traffic jams as it does airy country roads where the sundown winks through the trees. On a BC,NR song, you visit both, seconds apart. Such hopscotch present in Athens, France also means that when Wood sings 'I think she's still waiting for us somewhere / Underneath what we built to keep the waters clean', both the sensation of sweet memories bittered by age and the damning of the present to its inevitable demise feel like appropriate interpretations.
'References, references, references', chants Wood, after the gloriously self-aware notion that he could have fled the stage 'with the world's second best Slint tribute act'. Cultural accretion inebriates Science Fair's panic attack until the track becomes a drunken, post-modern purge. In fact, the whole album sometimes feels like an angry upchuck of culture at large. Flung around a vertiginous staircase of instruments and nauseously recognising themselves as 'just one among crowded stands', the band expresses the fear of being subsumed beneath the masses: a day-to-day anxiety under the governance of data-logged consciousness. Whatever homologous globule that Wood was 'born to run' from reminds me of the indistinct but grotesquely autonomous fleshy mass from towards the end of the 2016 videogame, INSIDE: a game about being the only fish swimming in the opposite direction and then being hunted for it.
Track X is the loveliest turn on the record - a tender swoon in a spiny shell - and if interviews with the band prove correct then it also teases the Edenic direction that their sophomore album might stroll towards. The ballad reminisces 'where we fucked as kids' but festering imagery of sacrificed goats and reminders that Wood 'was struggling' threaten the dream with a fall back into a Lynchian disturbia. Its choral backing and looping instrumentals that seem to fade away from the memories, already hazily described, make this threat one that is sad, rather than scary.
Opus is their closing reckoning with stolen ground, a song that begins in mourning and screeches out in fiery execution. The band sound ready to flee from culture's hodgepodge and let its altar fall to mintier waves. Their Klezmer influences rupture out in full force to invoke a hellish rave through a dust bowl, perpetually searching for definition that can only be discovered in the crucible of its own collapse: 'You on the back of my new pushbike, wheelie-ing down thunder road tonight.' The references built tall enough to topple now lead to an assuredly apocalyptic temple desecrated by youth. Anything new must destroy the old and newness is a white-water rapid of obsolescence nowadays. So, 'What we built must fall to the rising flames.'
The album's closing incantation that 'Everybody's coming up, I guess I'm a little bit late to the party,' is wonderfully summative. It encapsulates the looming anxiety of the record, looking around and seeing the world in on a secret that you are not involved in, whether it be one that is cultishly ancient or noxiously hip. It's the same social nightmare as being the only one not on the same wavelength as everybody else at a party that you're not allowed to leave. Then, the sweaty paranoia that their secret might also be a delusion, anyway.
It also aptly describes the excitement that a cohort of devout BC,NR fans have adopted and their anxious desire to ride whatever musical wave this is in case it crashes before they have a chance to ride it to its peak. The sense that the band's influence will be felt in a big way over the coming years and the cloying need to be the first at the party, if only to announce on Twitter that you were.