7.10.09

Album of the decade

Seems like the decade roundups are beginning already, so I'm jumping on the bandwagon. Now, you shouldn't expect a considered, bird's eye view of the changes in the pop landscape in what follows. Ten years ago I was eleven, and my pop music literacy extended to a few Will Smith records. It has only been in the last couple of years, with access to Pitchfork and illegal downloading, that I've started to get my head around all the great stuff there is out there. So no, this isn't about me combing through everything released in the past ten years to choose the 'best' record. This is about the record that had the most profound impact on me during these crucial years of my life. That it came 156th on Pitchfork's list is a bonus. So. Drumroll, please. The winner is...

Silent Alarm - Bloc Party

No, I didn't know who Gang Of Four were. Or Wire. Or Interpol. When I first listened to this it sounded like nothing I had heard before. I mean, those guitars really screeched! And that wasn't singing. It was... yelping. It didn't sound good, man. I recoiled. I put the album away and didn't listen to it for a long while.

Why did I buy the thing in the first place? Well, just about that time I was starting to get into what I still term 'music with guitars in'. Before that, my history was strictly R&B. Before that Eminem. And the Spice Girls during the 90s. But all the kids at my new school were going on about Oasis and the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand. No lie, the first time I heard about the latter, I thought they were a football player that had just signed to the local club. Shows how much I knew. But all this was intriguing. I felt left out of the conversation. What was this stuff? I had to know more. I started to read the music press at my local library. I started listening to the Xfm drive-time show when I got home from school. And what did I discover? Hype about this new band called Bloc Party. In one interview, these haughty upstarts from north London described themselves as having little to do with the garage/indie rock of the time, saying their music had much more in common with the pop and R&B in the charts. All-RIGHT! This was something I could get behind! I bought their debut album on the week it came out.

And, as you've heard, disappointment followed, and the CD was shelved. Still, I continued to listen to Xfm, having developed a passionate obsession with the sound of Lauren Laverne's voice. One day, she played the Bloc Party single 'So Here We Are'. Hold on. This wasn't angular and noisy and possessed by evil demons. This was a ballad. I knew ballads! I understood ballads! But this was a weird ballad. Kele was crooning alright, but the drums were behaving strangely, and the melody consisted of these hypnotizing chimes on a loop. I was entranced, even before I reached that euphoric 'I figured it out! I could see it again!' moment.

Those lyrics proved scarily providential. Because the rest of the album, refracted through 'So Here We Are', finally made sense to me. This was pop music. But it was pop music that was quirky and interesting and spoke to you in a way generic mainstream pop didn't. The album refused to leave my CD player for a long time. When it eventually made an exit, it was replaced with Feeder's Comfort In Sound. A few years later, We Have The Facts, Inverted World and Separation Sunday were doing the rounds. And that was the proverbial that.

Listening back to Silent Alarm now, I'm immediately transported back to when I was fifteen. There's a despondency to this record that fitted perfectly with where my brain was at in those days. Just look at that freezing, isolated cover. Listen to how the vocal sounds echoed and lost underneath the swirling, disorientating music. Silent Alarm was cold. It was depressed. It was hell. Even a song about fucking ('Banquet') sounds heartless and numb. The angry political number ('Helicopter') is devoid of any glimmer of hope -- even a miracle isn't enough. The brightest, most shimmering cut ('Pioneers') gets dissolved in irony and cynicism: 'we promised the world we'd tame it, what were we hoping for?'. The most triumphant moment -- 'we're gonna win this!' in 'Price Of Gas' -- is marred by martial grunting and elusive talk of nothing ever coming for free. And 'Compliments' rounds off the package perfectly. It gets even colder, even more isolated, as Kele mumbles about the loneliness of old age and our body's decay.

It's in the simple beauty of 'So Here We Are' where you find a draught of relief from all the despair. And you're gonna need it, because by then you've already gone through Silent Alarm's icy core: 'This Modern Love'. The song starts off innocently enough, with lines divided into left and right call-and-response: 'don't get offended... if I seem absent-minded', 'baby you've got to... be more demanding'. It's a conversation, a relationship, where only one person is speaking. Layers of sounded are added, the music builds, and Kele gets more desperate: 'what are you... holding out for/ what's always... in the way/ why so damn... absent minded/ why so scared... of romance'. This modern love is numb -- hamstrung by uncertainty and inertia. By the chorus, Kele can only wimper about how it 'breaks' and 'wastes' him. An impassioned, chaotic bridge follows, reaching a climax and then subsiding. Kele gathers himself together, becomes aloof and nonchalant, and asks his girl: 'do you wanna come over... and kill some time?' But the facade breaks, and the song ends on a pathetic plea: 'throw your arms around... me'.

The song, and the album as a whole, captured the spirit of my age (I think it was fifteen). It soundtracked my days feeling ostracized from all those other cool people, who seemed unfeeling in their cynicism and their constant resort to irony. Where did all the idealism go? Why so scared of romance? But the album also captured the hypocrisy of those feelings. I was just as ready to succumb to the twisted, cutting, self-destructive pleasures of cynical irony. I could be just as numb and unfeeling. Silent Alarm captures that contrast between surface calm, and violent internal emotions. In fact, it links the two together. We are lonely and depressed because we are unable to show our true selves. Alarms are ringing in our minds and hearts, but to the world outside we are silent.

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