By Daniel Garrett
A Weekend in the City
Producer: Jacknife Lee
The musical group Bloc Party’s album A Weekend in the City is fresh, intriguing, and significant: a sketch of the modern city, a sketch of lusty, fearful citizens, half-knowing the facts, half-believing in wisdom. Bloc Party, featuring singer-songwriter Kele Okereke, has done itself proud. Many people look at the images and gestures of musicians, and hear the sounds they make, and interpret who those musicians are—in musical, philosophical, and social terms—but when musicians are eloquent and self-aware, able to articulate ideas, and not just express emotion or describe experiences, within their own work and also as part of their public speech, such as in interviews, the musicians retain the ability and inclination to define themselves and their work, a frustrating fact for people who want a reputation for interpretation. The band Bloc Party’s album A Weekend in the City is full of experiences, ideas, and observations; and it is clear that this is a band of ambition, depth, imagination, and range, the kind of group that is celebrated by intelligent people who are also music lovers. To Bloc Party, I say: Welcome, and Thank You. “I am trying to be heroic in an age of modernity,” sings Kele Okereke, a guitarist, who with fellow guitarist Russell Lissack, bassist Gordon Moakes, and drummer Matt Tong make up the group Bloc Party. “I am trying to be heroic as all around me history sinks,” Okereke adds, in a quiet, deep, and smooth voice, in the second line in the first song (“Song for Clay”) on A Weekend in the City. Kele Okereke, as the song’s narrator, uses a falsetto voice as he sings of doubt and distance, with the drums and guitars quickening, and he admits to distracting himself with hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that do not defeat his ambivalence, and he recalls what came before: “…our parents suffered for nothing. Live the dream like the 80s never happened.” The soft British accent of Kele Okereke’s mild African voice makes Okereke a unique spokesman: and, handsome with sensitive eyes, and dark skin, full lips, a flat nose, and a head cropped with small dreadlocks, Kele Okereke, a thoughtful young man, is a figure of complexity, of modernity, one who recalls history, and he is a worthy icon. The hopes and sacrifices of parents, and of others who came before (such as activists, social workers, teachers, and artists) are assumed to bring about a new day; and a new day does come but it is never new enough, never different enough. It can be self-deceptive to act as if all has changed, when much has not changed: thus, one betrays oneself, and allows others, who have not given up power and do not intend to share it, to sabotage one’s plans. Food, drink, self-pity, sentimentality, glamour, drugs, and sex can distract, can offer the appearance of significant experience and the suggestion of meaning, but they do not convince, and they do not satisfy—for long. The facts must be faced: and “because East London is a vampire, it sucks the joy right out of me. How we longed for corruption in these golden years.” That is quite an opening for a collection of songs for an audience of young, fun-loving, and presumably hopeful people.
An individual can attempt to mask his dissatisfactions with the rituals of pleasure, and with customary sentimentality, but there are usually moments when displeasure comes to the surface of one’s mind, when it refuses to be denied. When that happens, one can be angry, depressed, make sharp comments, let one’s responsibilities fall by the wayside, and do rebellious things. How does a family handle unhappy members? How does a society manage unhappy citizens? With bribery? With force? With the offer of sacrifices? In “Hunting for Witches,” the second song on A Weekend in the City, the narrator has accepted that other people in society—not those who run the government, not the leaders of important corporations and significant organizations, but private individuals—are to blame. With a sputtering of media sound bites, consistent and consistently hard to make sense of, the second song starts: and, “I’m sitting on the roof of my house, with a shotgun and a six pack of beer. The newscaster says the enemy is among us,” the song’s narrator says, and “now is not the time for liberal thought, so I go hunting for witches.” The music is made by guitar and drums, and also includes techno beats, and much of the singing is fast, but the lyric line about its not being time for liberal thought is slowly spoken; and the narrator claims to be an ordinary man—with Kele Okereke’s British pronunciation of the word ordinary sounding not at all mundane to American ears and giving the words an eccentric, possibly ironic, tone—and, as always, one is mystified and worried by how “ordinary” people come to the few ideas they hold. Bombs on buses and airplanes transformed into missiles are matched with sexual fear and financial insecurity, and the public and private are mixed in a confusion of false motives and insensible goals. The wrong people are declared responsible for the status quo and the new terrors. (Okereke imagines rather than embodies the man: his sound is too full of youth, of hope, to bring frightening conviction to such a mind.) The band could say or suggest more about international relations, and the myths that religion insists upon, and any national government’s resistance to criticizing its own workings, but what it does convey is more than most bands attempt.
A Weekend in the City is a sketch, if not a map, of the contemporary moment and of London, a sketch of the modern city; and it is a musical recording with very public ambitions and a private heart. The development of culture, knowledge, and technology in a city are the basis of its modernism; and that culture, knowledge, and technology are ever growing, ever tested: and tested by each life, and by the diversity and the weight of all the lives, to be found within it. One person faces the frustrations of his current routines and recalls days of youth and wishes he had been more brave, more experimental, in the song “Waiting for the 7.18,” a song with speed-freak drumming and mostly throbbing guitars and a few quiet interludes. The line in “Waiting for the 7.18” that says, “Just give me moments, not hours or days” is not a request for abundant and indiscriminate time but a request for significant experience. Why had the narrator not made more of his life? Were the customs of his community intimidating, limiting? Was he, himself, weak by nature? Someone prays for dancing ability and social recognition in “The Prayer,” which begins with drumming, a murmuring chant, and scrapping and whooshing sounds, and has Kele Okereke’s modulated singing, and the person in the song asks, “Is it so wrong to want rewarding? To want more than is given to you?” Such questions undo the encouragement toward conformity, toward being satisfied with little to nothing. The narrator desires to charm and that is what the song does. Conformity is named directly in “Uniform,” in which at the mall “all the young people looked the same, wearing their masks of cool and indifference.” The desire for amusement, even cruel amusement, as well as the habits of drinking and buying new things and imitating others are all named. The ridicule that individuality receives, and the critiques from society that individuals are subjected to, are also named. (This is a band that manages to include, somewhat slyly, and no doubt smartly, some of the likely responses to its own ambition in its songs.)
There is a return to pleasure, and the promise of something else, in the song called “On,” in which the narrator says, “I am on, switched on, a sudden clearness, a clarity,” and he is with someone or something that loosens his tongue, and inclines him toward confidence, amid the dancing and drunkenness. Okereke’s voice sounds yearning: and it is brave to be this casually sensitive in public. The liberating force in the song “On” could be a new lover or a new drug, though “We’re chasing something we’ll never catch.”
Which city does not have its strangers, its immigrants? Which city does not have people who came from a long way off, a very different place with a different language, and different manners? The city—whether London or New York, whether Paris or Stockholm or Berlin—calls to people: calls promising difference, calls promising new opportunities, calls promising enough and more. The city, with its multitudes and its loneliness, with its riches and its poverty, with its permissions and its punishments, offers the individual fulfillment, offers the individual the abyss of his deepest self. In “Where Is Home?,” in which Kele Okereke sounds in duet with himself, self and conscience, self and torment, there is a funeral for the dead son of a woman from elsewhere, a woman of religious belief, a woman whose prayers have done her son no good in a strange land. The troubles that immigrant boys get into are legend, especially if they are black boys. “In every headline, we are reminded that this is not home for us,” says the song’s narrator, noting that the allegiance of immigrants is doubted, and that he himself burns “with anger all the time,” especially now when “we all read what they did to the black boy.” The song has inventive drumming, rock guitar, and orchestral texture, with effects that include what could be taken for gun shots; and the song was inspired by a real world incident. The narrator wonders, “Where is it? Where is home?” He moves between “humility and belligerence,” wanting to fight back, wanting to strike out at others—including “every young policeman” and “every old judge.” These are hard words to hear. These are exactly the kind of words that must be heard: these words tell the truth about the difficulties that some of us face in the cities of possibility and progress, of prejudice and pain.
“Kreuzberg,” a song of meditation and assessment and conviction, is somber and pretty, and suggests that longing inspires but is not fulfilled by sexual promiscuity, and the narrator, in East Berlin, is lucky to learn “at 25 that something must change.” The song—which reminds me of the music of Kitchens of Distinction, although Bloc Party shares the cultural ambition of the Dears—ends with the line, “Concerned mothers of the west, teach your sons how to truly love.” (Is it only men who must learn how to love; or only men who are the narrator’s current objects of desire and love?) There is a memory of a lost chance—for love, for sex—in the oddly cheery “I Still Remember,” in which two people were together, and “we left our trousers by the canal, and our fingers they almost touched.” The two people write their names on trains, laugh at people going to work, and one recalls later that “I should have kissed you by the water” and “I kept your tie” and “I still remember.”
Ordinary comforts, ordinary compensations: late nights, children’s games, and “I love you in the morning, when you’re still hung over” and “We need to rage through this life. There might be ones who are smarter than you, that have the right answers, that wear better shoes. Forget about those melting ice caps. We’re doing the best with what we’ve got.” The song “Sunday,” with those lines, and nearly martial drumming, is sung in a contemplative and tender voice; and near the song’s end—with its lines of an essential conservatism, a conservatism with a negative aspect—the lines are of a sincerity that they create a complex appreciation of disappointing lives.
Are disappointing lives death-haunted, death-driven; or merely ordinary—or both? In “SRXT,” in what seems a suicide note, there are pleasant memories and regrets and affirmations of love, with the acknowledgement that “being a man made me coarse, when I wanted to be delicate” and “If you want to know what makes me sad, well it’s hope, the endurance of faith, a battle that lasts a lifetime, a fight that never ends.” Of course, the desire for life—strong, and frustrated—can produce its opposite, the capitulation to death.
What we know to be important we must fight for, within ourselves and in the world. Some people think that music is only entertainment, and the rest of us know that it can be a forum for sharing our philosophical, spiritual, and social concerns. Bloc Party’s A Weekend in the City is proof of music’s philosophical depth, unimpeachable proof. If we want intelligence in the world, it must come into the world with us. If we want sensitivity, it must come into the world with us. What we value must come into the world with us, or we will not find it in the world. If we want decency and generosity, if we want elegance and delight, they must come into the world with us. What we value must come into the world with us.
Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Susan Werner, Randy Crawford, Neil Young, Patti Austin, Yoko Ono, U2, The Dears, Bright Eyes, Howlin’ Wolf, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, and others have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured on Offscreen.com; and, also, his wide-ranging work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist, NatCreole.com, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. His extensive “Notes” on culture and politics was on the web site of IdentityTheory.com. Author contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com