Bloc Party have never lingered long in one place. From jagged post-punk to cinematic indie to electronic experiments to anthemic rock, the band’s albums have been unique snapshots in their drastic, sonic evolution. Fifth LP HYMNS is no different.
Now without the vital pulse of drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes’ signature sparseness, remaining members Okereke and Russell Lissack (bolstered by Louise Bartle and Menomena member Justin Harris) have built a monument to “rebirth” (Okereke’s uncharacteristically revelatory chat with NME adds some valuable context).
HYMNS sees Okereke and Lissack continue to push their own boundaries, refusing to retread the confrontational aspects of 2012 LP FOUR out of desire and necessity for fresh pastures. HYMNS, a semi-concept album about faith and spiritual music, was designed to be “sensual”.
The first taste of this newfound direction was “The Love Within”, a dance-pop track that cleaved Bloc Party’s fanbase in two. The ‘synths’ – actually bizarre guitar effects from Lissack – have the power to irritate and invigorate, but this might just boast the best chorus they’ve written in years. It’s uplifting, addictive, stuffed with energy and disco beats, oozing with joy, and full of life. Change was certainly on the cards when they announced a return, and this is certainly change.
“The Good News” followed – it’s a Southern rock belter with bluesy licks, epic gospel choirs, and just a touch of Elbow. Then “Virtue”, a blurred Frankenstein’s monster of barren post-punk and dubby breakdowns. All of these are not like the others.
This streak continues on the rest of the album: “Only He Can Heal Me” is an ominous 2-step jam with operatic backing; “Exes” is a sincere apology with faltering acoustic guitars; “Fortress” could’ve been ripped from Trick (Okereke’s 2014 solo album). “Into The Earth” is a jangly pop number about death with beach-ready riffs.
Atmospheres are at the forefront, but one of the biggest changes arrives in the form of Okereke’s lyrics. He’s candid, apologetic, and happy – the aggression of earlier phases has dissolved, and there’s a peace to be gleaned from his words. It’s like he’s getting his affairs in order for the impending unknown – in more ways than one.
On one level, this is a retrospective of Bloc Party’s life, finding more about themselves via the power of hindsight; it’s also a compartmentalisation of that chapter, and a line underneath their history. As they look to the sunny horizon with apparent glee, they acknowledge their personal pitfalls, mistakes, and regrets. Some can’t be changed, but some can – and they’re willing to. Emotionally and lyrically, there’s a lot to get to grips with here.
HYMNS is a cathartic anthology that allows Okereke and Lissack to get a lot of things off their chests and out of their systems. It’s closure, putting a full stop by a dark period, and it’s hopeful, rejuvenated by change and pumped full of freedom. Bloc Party have teased the future while paying homage to the past – every one of their phases gets a revisit, but a whole host of new ideas are dangled in front of us.
A little ways down the line, HYMNS may reveal itself as a more rounded work. With the benefit of their next album, we may be able to see HYMNS in a better light. This is a stepping stone towards a new direction, and although it’s stunning in places, it’s not a triumphant renaissance. It does, however, demonstrate brilliance – “Only He Can Heal Me” and “Virtue” are among Bloc Party’s finest offerings.
With the absence of Tong and Moakes, there was a worry that Bloc Party wouldn’t survive, but HYMNS proves quite the opposite. With this newfound freedom, the future of Okereke, Lissack, Bartle, and Harris looks brighter than ever.