Underrated Gems: Bloc Party – A Weekend In The City

Bloc Party’s reputation was built on the strength of its masterful debut Silent Alarm, which remains one of the greatest albums of the indie rock mini-boom at the beginning of the century.  They channeled a ferocious energy through a combination of spiky, angular guitars and lyrics that zeroed in on battles both external and internal, creating a perfect mix of hard-edged rockers and introspective ballads.  Silent Alarm was both a critical and commercial success, and remains the most beloved album for many of its fans; any follow-up was bound to be met with some resistance, and indeed reception to A Weekend In The City was widely split.  There were many critics that saw Weekend as the beginning of the end of Bloc Party, but there was also a small passionate contingent that has for years fought against this perception, and who instead insist that it’s a classic that is in many ways equal (or even superior) to Silent Alarm.  Guess where Rust Is Just Right falls in this argument.

In many ways, A Weekend In The City was a huge gamble on the part of Bloc Party, and represented a bold change in musical direction.  The strengths of their debut lay in their innovative interpretation of early-80’s post-punk guitars from bands like Gang of Four as well as the brilliant and manic drumming of Matt Tong.  The guitar hooks of a single like “Helicopter” drew in the average listener, but it was the relentless attack of Tong’s drums in “Like Eating Glass” that mesmerized listeners and created fans.  The band chose to de-emphasize these aspects of their sound in Weekend, opting instead for more electronic instrumentation and building more songs around Kele Okereke’s delicate (but potentially divisive) vocals.  It’s understandable that many fans were turned off by this decision, but even if they were turned off by this general approach, the band’s harshest critics would have to agree that the moments when Bloc Party veered into its more “classic” sound are some of the band’s best work, like the furious opener “Song For Clay (Disappear Here)” and the buoyant  “Waiting For The 7:18”.

A chief complaint of many detractors of Weekend was the unconventional sequencing of the album’s tracks.  Silent Alarm had its fair share of slow songs and ballads, but their cumulative effect was muted because they were paired throughout with the more energetic tracks, allowing the album to avoid any lulls.  With Weekend, the band packs the rockers at the beginning, adding a few tracks that alternated moods before piling the introspective sad songs for the last third, which created the sense for many that the album peaked too early and dragged towards the end.  However, the critics of the track order fail to consider the thematic concept of the album as a whole, that in this case the title A Weekend In The City is more than a mere placeholder–it’s a declaration of narrative intent.  The album does an excellent job of mirroring the varying moods as one experiences the weekend: the initial thrills of getting off work on Friday and partying into the night, the attempts to keep the energy up with varying degrees of success on Saturday, and finally the letdown and regret of Sunday.  It’s a brilliant musical representation of a common shared experience, though must of us could only wish to feel an epiphany like the thrilling climax of “SRXT”.

By viewing the album as a running narrative of a weekend, the listener can dig out subtle nuances and derive interesting new meanings by placing songs in context, but each song is still able to stand on its own without losing any significance.  Throughout the running storyline of “the weekend”, Bloc Party interweaves separate statements about drugs and partying (“Song For Clay”, “The Prayer”), racism and terrorism (“Hunting For Witches”), as well as regret and depression (“Sunday”, “SRXT”).  Instead of invoking abstract expressions like in Silent Alarm, Kele splices in specific references in his lyrics this time around, giving a personal touch to each of these songs.  Some people may be taken out of the moment by hearing an odd mention, but others prefer having a specific grounding point; for instance, I’ll always remember the line “I’d pick and eat more wild blackberries” because it conveys a more personal memory and sentiment, even if it appears a bit goofy on its face.

A Weekend In The City works not only as a cohesive whole, but as an excellent collection of songs.  The moments when the band plays to its strengths are thrilling (like the end to “Waiting For The 7:18”), and when Bloc Party challenges itself to stretch beyond its comfort zone, it is able to rise to the challenge (“On”, “Sunday”).  Instead of viewing the album as the beginning of its decline, it should instead be seen as an example of a band maturing and growing musically.  Over the years, the reputation of Weekend hasn’t really improved, as the band has moved further in the direction of dance music and electronic influences, much to the dismay of many of its fans.  However, it’s an album that’s held up surprisingly well over the years and is well worth revisiting, if you need to revise your original opinion.

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