“I used to find my answers in the gospels of St. John,” Kele Okereke moans on “The Good News,” a generic blues-rock stomp from Bloc Party’s fifth LP. “But now I find them at the bottom of this shot glass.” Built on dust-blown slide guitars and hammy gospel organ, the track speaks of a lost soul finding redemption via the good book—and it finds the indie-rock veterans veering uncomfortably close to Christian rock. “My pastor tells me that my light is dimming,” Okereke confesses. The line proves true, but not in the way he intended.
There’s nothing wrong with a secular rock band tapping into spirituality or religion—acts as disparate as U2, Belle & Sebastian, and, yes, Black Sabbath have gone pseudo-holy without alienating their audience. But Okereke charts a more overt, awkward path with the synth-heavy Hymns. Inspired by a lecture from author Hanif Kureishi, who spoke about modern culture turning a blind eye toward evangelical art, the frontman aspired to craft a set of sacred songs from his own perspective. But you can feel the band squirming under the strain of that concept: Okereke seemingly wrote backwards from the initial theme, tossing out assorted allusions to god and salvation without specific lyrical details anchoring these emotions to a real human being.
Hymns may flatline as a concept album, even a loose one—but then again, nobody listens to Bloc Party for the lyrics. There are two major reasons the band’s debut LP, 2005’s Silent Alarm, remains the high watermark of not only their discography but mid-2000s rock: the frenetic buzz of the guitar-heavy arrangements and the way Okereke distilled the angst of that era into shoutable choruses.
Over a decade later, Bloc Party is a different band, literally: Drummer Matt Tong and bassist Gordon Moakes, the band’s rhythm section spark plug, have hit the bricks, respectively replaced by 21-year-old Louise Bartle (whom Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack discovered on YouTube) and Justin Harris (formerly of Menomena). It’s no slight against the newcomers, but the minimalist synth-rock approach of Hymns offers them little room to flex. The processed drum sounds and programmed synth-bass tones drag the energy on “The Love Within” (a barrage of quacking, chromatically whirring keys) and brooding disco darkness of “Different Drugs.” Hymns, more than any other Bloc Party LP, plays like an Okereke solo album—emphasizing weepy melodies often sung in falsetto.
But this leaner, at times more subdued approach occasionally delivers goosebumps. “Only He Can Heal Me” slow-builds monastic-style chants, a snappy drum groove, and rattling tremolo guitar into a tense climax. “Fortress” finds Okereke channeling his sights on a lover, rather than a creator: “Pull me under, under the ocean / Cover my mouth with yours / Put it on me like no one’s watching,” he croons, as Lissack unleashes white noise shrouds like light refracted through a chapel’s stained-glass window.
There are glimpses of vitality on Hymns, but The Spirit is flaky.