Pretty much across the board, the comeback album by British indie rock pioneers Bloc Party has been given very neutral reviews. With the exception of Pitchfork, few have thrown Four completely under the bus. Most have stuck with a solid 3, 3 and a half, or four stars without a ton of thought. It isn’t entirely unjustified though - on the surface, Four seems simple and straightforward. The band’s fourth album features all four original members on twelve cuts. The artwork and packaging design aren’t very revealing about any themes or overarching dramatic motifs, and from song to song, the album is a bit discontinuous. But at KEXP, we go past the surface, and underneath, Four has a larger story to tell that some have been willing to admit. While the album may not be a first choice to bring new fans to Bloc Party’s scene, it is a refreshing addition for true fans, and finds the band perhaps more relaxed than ever before.
Comeback albums are a unique beast in the musical realm (Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings Portishead’s Third), but equally intriguing are albums that see bands leaving their original label and finding new homes (Nine Inch Nails post-Interscope, Beach House moving from Car Park to Sub Pop, The Flaming Lips calming down on Warner Bros and then freaking out again in their current label hiatus). On Four, Bloc Party left London-based label Wichita and even left the UK (gasp!) to record their new record in New York on Frenchkiss. With the change came a dramatic change in production. Paul Epworth (the mastermind behind Silent Alarm) and Jacknife Lee (who fronted A Weekend In The City and helped Epworth with the production on Intimacy) are both gone. Instead, the record is produced by Alex Newport, who also worked on the EP for Young Legionnaire - a side project of Bloc Party bassist Gordon Moakes. Newport takes a different direction with Four, stripping back the usual layers and layers of guitar and drum post-production that Bloc Party fans have grown accustomed to in order to create a much rawer and honest Bloc Party sound. This is perhaps best seen in the naked, guitar driven romps of “So He Begins to Lie” and “Kettling”. Here, there is little post-punk to been seen. Rather, Bloc Party embraces a heavier rock and roll sound to back Kele Okereke’s famously accentuated tales of fame, homecoming, and identity crisis.
Dabbling is a very present theme on Four. “Octopus” and “Real Talk” have bits of Radiohead in them. “Truth” and “Day Four” have more some more classic Brit-rock influence (that “you complete me” hook on “Truth” screams Oasis). And old-school Bloc Party is definitely here - “V.A.L.I.S.” is a gorgeous tale about growing older and not wanting to lose yourself on the long road ahead, while “Team A” is a punchy Bloc Party classic with great Kele one-liners like “snitches get stitches” and “you can run fast boy, but I’m faster than you”. But for the most part, after all those days of post-punk guitar lines with little vertical movement, I just think the band wanted to throw down a bit more. “Coliseum” and “We Are Not Good People” take the cake for face-melting guitar hooks, and the latter makes for one hell of a sing along.
To really understand Four, you have to soak in the context. After Intimacy dropped and the band toured, tension was high between band members and hiatus was a necessity. With their Wichita contract expired, Kele went to the club with his solo material while other members worked on other collaboration projects (Pin Me Down, Young Legionnaire, etc.). With time came rumors, and many fans were unsure whether or not a return would happen at all. But with Four, Bloc Party comes back together for one sole purpose - to jam together again. Four is not about a massive concept piece that the band members have been thinking through for years. It’s not the result of years of writing side by side or even reviving old material to try and make a buck. Rather, Four is relaxed. The album goes in all different directions and the band tell stories in between tracks. For some, none of this may sound appealing. But true fans ought to reconsider before they forget Four. It is a worthy addition to the band’s stellar catalogue, and the live adaptions of these tracks are sure to be glorious.
Four is out now on Frenchkiss Records. Bloc Party will be in Seattle September 28 for a show at Showbox Sodo.