There are thousands of songs about the disillusionment of young adults, but not many start with lyrics as abrasive as “she tries to fuck me, I pretend that I’m asleep instead / the cursed vultures give me sourdough, my daily bread”. This, in a nutshell, is why I’ve been so excited about Black Country, New Road. Their pair of 2019 singles had a caustic edge, delivered through diaristic stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a chaotic but controlled atmosphere conjured by their seven-piece band. It was refreshing, and left you wanting more.
But we’ve had to wait a little while for an album from this bunch (because, 2020), and there’s a self-aware humour evident in the presentation of their debut. The title seems to ironically mock the debut album hype (four of these six songs have been previously released in some form), the artwork foregoes slick band photography for generic internet stock images, and even the tracklist seemingly references the countless Slint comparisons with six tracks, like Spiderland.
So of course the album begins with a five-and-a-half minute instrumental. The band is a mix of classically-trained and self-taught musicians, and in one of their few interviews, saxophonist Lewis Evans described improvising with klezmer musicians from a young age. These Eastern European rhythms are evident on the unusual opener. It would be easy to characterise this as pretentiousness, but I think the instrumental functions as an effective mission statement, emphasising the importance of the band as a unit and providing the album with a musically rich springboard to launch from.
Then we come to the re-recorded first single, and the crux of the album. Your experience of this record will greatly depend on whether you are indeed hearing these songs ‘for the first time’ or not. Because for whatever reason, there are some pretty drastic lyrical changes from the previous versions of both ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’. The former just about keeps the charm of the original, but the latter finds vocalist Isaac Wood changing not only a host of its most acerbic lyrics, but his entire style of delivery which sounds, to my ears, unnecessarily cartoonish and over the top. In between listens of this album, I heard a Brian Eno interview where he opined that “the main effect of time on ideas is to normalise them. To knock the rough edges off. But often the rough edges are the idea.” I get the possible reasons for knocking off the rough edges here (artistic tinkering, embarrassment, commercial considerations) but to my ears, they’ve lost more than they’ve gained. To newcomers though, they may still have the original sparkle.
Fortunately, a couple of the newer songs quell this disappointment. ‘Science Fair’ crackles with a similar thrilling energy to those early singles. The instrumentation pulses with a rising tension that perfectly complements the absurdity and colour of Wood’s lyrics. Full of narrative flair and richly satisfying phrases (“I bolted through the gallery”), it’s a great composition. ‘Track X’, by contrast, is more reserved. It’s the song that sounds most conventional here, but its sombre introspection is well-played and works as an appealing antidote to the theatre of the preceding songs.
‘Opus’ ends the album. It was written on the same day as the opener and with similar klezmer-style rhythms, you can tell. But unlike the earlier track, it doesn’t have the same propulsive spirit and it’s the only song that feels like a drag on repeat listens. It’s a shame, but it’s somewhat fitting that the album ends on something of an anti-climax. For the first time isn’t the stunning debut that some anticipated (or proclaim) it to be. It’s simply a pretty good first effort from a band with plenty of promise. One hopes that now the obligatory first time is out of the way, the road is paved for something special.
Words by Tom Burrows