by Will Dooley
"The Bad Place they are trying to escape from is a familiar one: anxiety and medication, Danish crime dramas, influencers, cyber fetishes and Kanye West."
In a 2019 interview with The Quietus, Black Country, New Road’s vocalist Isaac Wood explained the band’s name as describing “a good way out of a bad place”. While this could simply be a throwaway comment, the seven-piece band’s debut album For the first time is saturated in the tension that comes with finding “a good way out of a bad place”. So much so that it could almost pass for a mission statement.
At once hopeful and despairing, romantic and cynical, formally innovative and self-referential, their music deftly finds a balance between the pessimism of being stuck in a hellish dystopia and the optimism of yearning for freedom and escape.
This album arrives upon a wave of media hype unusual for such an experimental-sounding group. Having gathered a reputation for heavily ironic lyrics and even heavier free-jazz-post-punk density, For the first time seems an attempt to correct the record ever so slightly and reclaim the narrative before it runs out of control.
They’ve dialled down the archness and introduced some softer, subtler moments to offset the face-melting, cathartic breakdowns. The new recordings of their first two singles Athens, France and Sunglasses contain conspicuously fewer “fuck”s than before. Track X is surprisingly sweet and fluttering, bringing in Georgia Ellery’s cooing backing vocals and dispensing with percussion entirely. The aforementioned Athens, France features a new, lovely and lilting outro. Anyone who’s heard them before already knows that they can confront us with a skronking sax freakout, a chugging, monolithic riff, a deadpan quip - and indeed they do so on most of the six tracks. There is however clearly a deliberate effort to sit this tendency alongside something gentler. This makes for a more cohesive and satisfying whole and dispels any potential accusations of shallow one-trick-pony-ism.
"Having gathered a reputation for heavily ironic lyrics and even heavier sound, this album is an attempt to correct the record and reclaim the narrative before it runs out of control."
Bad Places, Black Country
This “bad place” that BC,NR are trying to escape from is quite a familiar one. A hyper-connected and consciousness-deflating world full of “things aren’t built like they used to be” parochialism, anxiety and medication, Danish crime dramas, influencers, cyber fetishes and Kanye West. It’s discordant and horrible, gradually breaking us into little pieces of powerless turmoil.
There’s no cack-handed blunt criticism of consumerism here though, no “punk” political diatribes or cynical edginess. Instead Isaac Wood’s speak-sing vocals are laced with a generously dark humour, pointing out in unexpected moments those familiar symbols of bullshitness in order to expose the absurdity of what so often overwhelms us.
This tension embroils the narrator-characters of the songs, the lyrics blurring the lines between sincerity and irony. On Sunglasses, the narrator starts off as a detached observer of a partner’s family’s material privilege, “in no way part of” it, but so quickly transitions to become just like her father, with all the worldviews that come with it. The transition is a matter of mere seconds. The second half of the track seems to relish in the shallow buzz of confidence epitomised by the titular shades, full of bravado and swagger yet still “so ignorant”.
What makes BC,NR interesting is much more than the lyrics, though it’s difficult to disentangle the words from the music itself. The band works together as one interconnected whole, never allowing any one member to dominate. The loud and quiet dynamic, building up and breaking down, is always done collectively with a seemingly instinctive flow. Their intriguing klezmer influence comes through most obviously on Instrumental and Opus. The variety of musical backgrounds - some members classically trained, some self-taught - coheres into an impressively exercised group consciousness, a unique, genre-ambivalent blend.
Good Ways on New Roads
This group consciousness is key to the urgent, dynamic energy, the “good way” from the bad place. There is real joy and optimism to be found, an escape through collective will and effort. Despite having a formula that could so easily make for a bleak and inward-looking tedium, the album is determined and often thrilling to listen to.
Neat little melodic interplays between Lewis Evans’ sax and Georgia Ellery’s violin are delightful, and the solid and reliable rhythm section keeps things from spilling off into a million futile directions. There are some tremendously satisfying moments scattered throughout the forty-minute runtime: Instrumental with its nagging repetition and perfectly placed drops; the claustrophobic anxiety of Science Fair; or that bit in the middle of Sunglasses where the whole song seems to melt into dissonant disarray. Even at their most apparently chaotic the band remains in full control of the mood and overall structure.
Nowhere is this more explicit than on the final track, the appropriately-named Opus. Here the contrasting tendencies are laid out plainly side-by-side. On the one hand we have the mournful and reflective quiet section, a slow and graceful waltz characterised by a beautiful sax/violin riff. On the other, a twitchy and propulsive louder section - pure manic joyous momentum. Within each of these is a careful, affective dialect that on the drop of a cue is flipped on its head.
This two-way conversation between creating something new and destroying what went before is made clear in the lyrics too. The lines “What we built from Black Country ground / In your car out of this small town / You on the back of my new push-bike / Wheelie-ing down Thunder Road tonight” employ that classic trope of escape from the mundane and restrictive - driving away from a small town, off into a more exciting unknown. The Bruce Springsteen reference (following on from one in Science Fair) is a dead giveaway - what songwriter better expressed the yearning freedom beyond provincial narrowness?
For the First Time doesn’t quite manage to find us a good way out of this bad place, but it achieves what every truly great debut album should: it is an exciting and singular statement of intent, suggestive of all manner of possible next steps. And most importantly it slaps.
You can listen to the album, and support the band, on their Bandcamp page
Will Dooley is a Brighton-based music writer, maker and an activist with Acorn community union.