The Hang of Music: Yesterday’s Back (With A Vengeance)
Here are some words to clue you in on this week’s review. Ahem *coughs politely*.
“THIS WEEK I’M REVIEWING KELE OKEREKE’S SOLO ALBUM “THE BOXER”! ENJOY!“
Now, partiality alert: I am a huge Bloc Party fan. I always loved them, ever since hearing “Little Thoughts” on NME. They are awesome. But even a die-hard fan like me had a very hard time with album number three, “Intimacy” – the one immediately preceding their hiatus and lead singer Kele Okereke recording and releasing “The Boxer”. And I’d started to figure that part of the reason for that was probably the band’s unerring swing towards electronica, thanks to said singer.
Which was, as far as I was concerned, absolutely fine and cool. He finds himself being limited by the 4 guys in a band format, and instead wants to make dancey groovey keyboard tunes? Great! Some of the band’s efforts in that respect had already been epic: “Flux” and “One More Chance”, for example.
And the stuff on Intimacy that didn’t work (i.e. a lot)? We can put that down to conflicts between the vision and the medium. I mean an indie rock band shouldn’t be where we try and get our electronica from – what’s the shredding guitarist gonna do? Hum?* So Kele has to go out on his own, and go and be the best electronic artist he can be.
So why doesn’t this work? Because most of the stuff here is exactly the stuff that he was doing with Bloc Party. Either he’s doing stuff that would probably benefit from other artists being involved, or he’s remaking “Intimacy” all over again. Including repeating the mistakes he was seemingly forced into by the 4-guy rock band aesthetic.
Look, I’m gonna come out and say it: “Walk Tall” is pretty much a carbon copy of “Mercury”, the first single off of Bloc Party’s third album. Carbon copy.
Everything’s there; the minimalism, the toneless electronic noises, the lyrics about both standing your ground and losing those close to you, the emphasis on an empty chorus, even the way he sings on it. Were this rap, I’d probably be talking about his flow. This sounds like a cover rather than a unique song. And I’m not going to say “I hated Mercury”, but figure this: the only version that I actually have, listenable on my ipod, is the remix by CSS, which adds an actual tune to it. Wait, sorry, I wasn trying not to be harsh about “Mercury”. Shit.
I try not to get this negative this quickly in a review – hence the partiality warning at the start. So I’ll tone it down from here as much as I can. If I can. After all, “Walk Tall” is only the throwaway track one, like “Ares” was before now. The chief single, “Tenderoni”, is a lot better I think. As it should be, too – the first single off an album like this should be a demonstration of the sort of thing the album will produce.
So, true to form, “Tenderoni” shows the direction that Kele wants to go in. It’s a pretty catchy dance number. I’m surprised by this, really, as I’d have thought that, considering the moves he’d made in the past (Flux, One More Chance, his guest vocals on The Chemical Brothers’ rather excellent “Believe”) I’d have thought Kele would choose to go somewhere much grungier than this. On the one hand, the song is a very clean and well structured song. On the other hand, this makes it come off as a bit inoffensive.
This might, however, be Kele doing his best to stick to the medium of dance music itself. Electronica, and dance especially, are very inoffensive. In that respect, I’m not at all surprised that most of the songs on here are essentially love songs. In fact, the tone comes off as being a lot more bitter than other artists. I know that’s not really hard, but still.
This is almost certainly a conscious choice. For contrast, Bloc Party lyrics used to do go to interesting places, like repeatedly referencing works such as Less than Zero (“Song for Clay (Disappear Here)”), or attack the reactionary press and media (“Hunting For Witches”), and discuss American foreign policy (“Price of Gas”), or talk about people they knew with mental disorders (“She’s Hearing Voices”) or the spread of AIDS (“Talons”). But from “The Boxer”, and with the exception of “Rise” (whose message is little more than “power to the people”), the lyrics on here are either highly vague or highly sentimental.
Despite the genre change, though, and despite the dropping of more introspective lyrics in favour of easier to grip, more predictable ones; despite that, a lot of the songs on here still sound an awful lot like Bloc Party songs. The best example of this is “Unholy Thoughts”, which even nicks some of the background vocals from “Kreuzberg” – specifically the humming behind the chorus. Actally, come to think of it, “Unholy Thoughts” doesn’t even use much in the way of electronic elements. In fact, “Unholy Thoughts” sounds ALMOST EXACTLY LIKE A BLOC PARTY SONG!
As does “Yesterday’s Gone”, which almost exactly nicks the chords, structure and tone of “SRXT”**. Which makes me wonder: if the only differences between the songs are going to be superficial, then why did Kele even bother going solo?
Looking back up a bit, I wasn’t really sure about putting that track, “Rise” up to listen to. One of the reasons why I put tracks up there is to give you, the audience, a suitable taste of what it is I’m talking about, and to give a snapshot of the album. A microcosm, almost, comprising as many different parts of the target album as possible. And really, “Rise” doesn’t work very well in that respect. It is a bad reflection of the album as a whole, as not many of the tracks on it sound like “Rise” – it’s unique.
Although, the more I think about it, “Rise” does give an accurate reflection of one particular perspective on the album. To elaborate: “Rise is a mix of a bunch of very disparate parts, some of which very light, twinkly and chilled, and some of which quite harsh and driven. There are some indie rock elements and some electronic elements, and not always at the same time. And I’m not sure if they go together well. To recap, then, I think “Rise” works very well as instead a metaphor for what Kele wanted “The Boxer” to be. And to reiterate, I’m not sure that the end result worked out well.
The whole album feels like an offcuts and b-sides album, rather than a whole thing. For a number of reasons: partly because most of the good stuff on here sounds, instead of like a new creation, like offcuts from “Intimacy” that Kele wanted to get on the final piece, but couldn’t fit in.
But it also sounds like that because there’s very little consistency between the songs. Looking on the wiki, and in particular at the three – count them: 3!– producers that worked on this, part of me wonders if that might be because, like “Tonight” (another patchy album by a talented artist/band – whom I love) it was produced by a bunch of different people, all clearly with different conceptions of what “The Boxer” should sound like. Even excluding Kele from the mix, 3 different producers is a heady mix of egos, and to my knowledge, most records only have the one.
This album is hard to review on its own terms. On the one hand it is a new, solo artist’s sole work, and should be treated as something entirely different. That said, it has so many echoes and shares so much with Kele’s previous released works that to consider it on its own, in a vacuum, would be foolish. And as a solo piece, I find it inconsistent, and as a continuation of a previous set of work, it’s not as effective as the previous albums.
That said, what do I know – I’m just a rabid fan 🙂
* Oh wait, they do use a lot of that…
** Interestingly, both “SRXT” and “Kreuzberg” are off of “A Weekend In The City” – their decidedly-indie second album, rather even than being off the more experimental and electronic third album “Intimacy”. Curious, that.