First off. I shouldn’t be here today. I missed my train on Friday. I missed my train because when I got to the station at 4 in the morning, I found it was running at least four hours late. I decided to take a nap and inadvertently am/pmed my alarm clock. I was taking the train, because I hate taking planes, and if you want to know why I hate taking planes, it’s a long, long story that I’ll save for another time.
The reviews are in. Bloc Party’s A Weekend In The City is either genius on a grand scale that exceeds their debut, the work of a band heading in a new direction as they avoid the sophomore slump, or overwrought, overproduced and over hyped. On the high end, there’s The Onion’s AV Club, Drowned in Sound, and All Music Guide. On the low end of the grading scale, you’ll find Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, and Stylus. In most cases where an album is met with mixed reviews, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s likely that the album is not as brilliant as some might say, and similarly, it’s not nearly as bad as others would lead you to believe. I’m not so certain that this is the case with Bloc Party. I would argue that this is a case of the reviews meeting the reviewer’s expectations, as well as cynics making a case for a sophomore slump, where one may not exist.
The cursed Sophomore Slump in popular music exists for many reasons. The best rationale I have heard is that a band has their whole life to record their first album, but only a year or two to work up to release number two. Next, you have to consider the musical landscape. Any band not treading in traditional rock styles has to worry about whether the sound they rode on their debut is still relevant a couple years later. Finally, there’s the issue of direction. Do you go with what worked on the first album, and risk being labeled a one-trick pony? Do you go for the more is better approach and emphasize what worked best on your first album, but bring in bigger producer and use a bigger budget? What about a new direction all together? Is it worth the risk of alienating the fans that bought your first disc? Or, maybe you’re best off not thinking about grand plans and simply go about your business making music.
There’s plenty of ways you can mess up that second album, and, unfortunately, no guide for how to do it right. Let’s consider some of Bloc Party’s peers in the loose group of dance punk, and new wave revivalism, and see how they fared with their follow-up. Franz Ferdinand used the more of the same approach and made an album that was forgettable in comparison to their debut. The Killers went for the more is better approach, decided to channel their inner Springsteen, and set out to make the album of the decade. The resulting work, Sam’s Town, was laughable.
Bloc Party decided to take the middle road. The basic structure of their sound remained (cut-up drumming, jagged guitars, Kele Okerere’s emotional singing, and the occasional atmospheric expansion), while they brought in Jacknife Lee, a UK producer better known for epic productions like Snow Patrol and U2, to man the consoles.
Stylus would like you to believe that Bloc Party changed too much, and let their sound become too big. At first author Nick Southall explores the Sophomore Slump, then opens the second paragraph with what the band did right, “On first contact, A Weekend in the City seems to have found a perfect middle ground.” The remainder of the review picks apart the album for being filled with experiments that didn’t work, and being too different and sounding too grand. If you want to create a sophomore slump, then all you have to do is work hard to find fault with the first half of the disc by slagging on “The Prayer”, a song that would have most likely been labeled by brilliant had it been recorded by TV On The Radio, then focus on the second half of the album, where songs like “Where is Home” tend to drag on a bit. At the end of the review, I’m wondering about Southall’s expectations for Bloc Party. It seems to me that this is a case of not knowing what you want from a second album, then reviewing an album down because it wasn’t the first album. What if they had recorded Silent Alarm 2.0. What would the criticisms have been?
Josh Modell, from The Onion’s AV Club, is the unbridled optimist to Sylus’ jaded pessimist. Modell’s review opens describing A Weekend In The City as, “smart, strange, just different enough from its predecessor, and, eventually, absolutely stunning.” Here’s a man who went into A Weekend In The City, wanting something different, finding it in “Hunting For Witches” and “The Prayer” and scoring his review accordingly. Interestingly, in the comments for Modell’s review, you can find scores of readers, voicing their admiration for Silent Alarm being one of the decade’s top releases, and consequently, being disappointed that A Weekend In The City is not like Silent Alarm.
Scanning the other reviews, you can easily see how the author’s own expectations for A Weekend In The City factored into the final score. From A.P., the author was expecting the disc to be vastly different from it’s predecessor, so naturally, there was the complaint that they played it too safe. Rolling Stone and The New York Times wanted more songs like “Banquet,” “Helicopter,” or “So Here We Are,” and Rolling Stone in particular laments the loss of soaring choruses.
Personally, my thoughts on A Weekend In The City are most in line with Pitchfork reviewer, Nitsuh Abebe, who took a level, honest approach to A Weekend In The City. You won’t find the words “Silent” and “Alarm” in this review, and it is not driven by what the author wanted from Bloc Party. It’s focused on what Bloc Party did with their second album, and not what they didn’t do.
Similarly, when I bought A Weekend In The City, on Tuesday, I listened with an open mind. Instead of being a critic, and trying to pick apart every last note, I made the conscious decision to go back to being a music fan. I was unencumbered by the need to be intelligent, witty, or poignant. Not surprisingly, I found an album that’s going to be in heavy rotation for the coming months, and a new favorite song in “Waiting For The 7:18.”