Sometimes it seems like a snarky Simon Cowell leading us in second-rate Whitney Houston covers is the best the U.K. has to offer. After all, it’s been a long time since David Bowie made a good album, and nearly half a century since the British Invasion. But South London-raised Bloc Party is everything envious Anglophiles could possibly wish for in a young band. Making smart and zealous post-punk — to throw around a relatively meaningless term — they seem like natural heirs to the intercontinental throne. (Yet they self-effacingly refute the next-big-thing hype, describing themselves as “an autonomous unit of un-extraordinary kids reared on pop culture between the years of 1976 and the present day.”)
“Silent Alarm,” an album that fervently spans the breadth of expression, lives up to high expectations. This is no stateside LP debut for a group whose sole talent is churning out catchy punk hits. “Alarm” is an album that could only be made by a band inches away from true artistic maturity: Like the Clash on their 1977 self-titled debut, Bloc Party combines relentlessly pounding electric guitars with lyrics that are unapologetically personal.
“Like Eating Glass,” the haunting opening track, begins with Kele Okereke’s dark crooning: “It’s so cold in this house,” he stoically sings, painting a disheartened aura of isolation. The track’s introspective tone is not fleeting, but sets a precedent for the album’s smart and almost uncomfortably intimate lyrics. And though “Silent Alarm” is an album you could happily dance to, from its first moments Silent Alarm surpasses energetic guitar riffs and pounding bass lines to take on a more sinister tone — especially because of the lyrics.
Self-evaluation is at the core of “Silent Alarm” — the band refers to the hype heaped on them while recording the album, and focuses even more on the act of making music. On the frenetic “Pioneers,” one of the album’s highlights, they slyly declare: “We promised the world we’d tame it/ What were we hoping for?” They depict the process of creating music with a roar of power: “So here we are reinventing the wheel/ I’m shaking hands with a hurricane.”
Almost predictably, this self-evaluation turns into a yearning for the past. On “Luno” they cry out for old times, with jolting vocal lines mirrored in harsh instrumental riffs. On a subtler note, the echoing guitars and delicately lyrical vocals of “Plans” is a plea to the apathetic to “Stop being so laissez-faire/ We’re all scared of the future.” “She’s Hearing Voices,” the tale of a femme fatale, has a similar darkness, but is driven with a much fiercer energy by Matt Tong’s relentless drumming and the mechanical repetition of the refrain.
If there are any problems with “Silent Alarm,” it’s that it is almost eerily well-polished, and so at its worst can sound unnatural or homogeneous. Bloc Party drives ceaselessly from start to finish, refusing to pause even in the album’s most tender moments. And while “Blue Light” is poignantly sweet, it seems jolting and out of place — which robs it of its warmth. Similarly, the emo-like nostalgia of “Luno” and tracks like the Talking Heads-sounding “This Modern Love,” which pines for a return to old school love, feel somewhat desperately forced. “So Here We Are” succeeds where those songs fail in molding the band’s instrumental energy with sentimentality. Russell Lissack’s glimmering, unaffected guitar channels the subtle beauty of the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Okereke’s complex vocals keeps the band afloat during the few moments the music lags. Passionate and versatile, the band’s frontman astounds us with his ability to be both sarcastically pert and shockingly raw. And behind him the band is unfailingly tight; the rhythm section remains an inflexible backbone for the band’s fast, virtuosic guitars. But in their artful creation of what is nearly a “perfect” album, Bloc Party sacrifices ease and fluidity, the very characteristics which might be expected of a young band.
With a glossy polish covering a core of quasi-teen angst, there’s no doubt that Bloc Party is still evolving. But given that “Silent Alarm” is the band’s American freshman creation, we should hold our breaths for their burst from the cocoon.