By Josh Loynes
I realise that it’s largely considered wanker-ish behaviour to quote yourself, but allow it for just this once. After seeing Black Country, New Road live at the start of last year, one of the last gigs I went to before The Event, I had this to say as part of a long, rambling and unpublished mini-essay I wrote recounting the experience.
“One of the forerunners in the current wave of experimental rock bubbling up from the south, Black Country, New Road seem to have struck gold with a sound that has left every member of the “you probably won’t know them” Northern Quarter vibe police painfully erect with no more than a pair of singles and an ever-escalating run of mythical live shows where “you just HAD to be there”. Improv and originality is the name of the game, with the set made up of about 4 or 5 discernible songs weaved together by extended sections of carefully curated chaos.”
A lot has happened since then (and not just the attempted coining of the fantastic term speedywunder-core to describe some of these bizarre young bands harking from the eponymous label and Brixton’s legendary Windmill). With their debut album finally out, it’s difficult to decide whether BC,NR have captured that same sense of electric and eclectic excitement in the studio, and really how much that matters.
Going into For the First Time there already seemed to be potential cause for concerns about “freshness”, with 4 of the 6 tracks already having been released in one form or another as singles. However with a band who’s discography is so extensively catalogued through live bootlegs, there’s little they can really do to avoid this. Bookending the album are the only previously unreleased tracks Instrumental and Opus, the first living up to its name with a lyric-less slow build-up to a marching avalanche of klezmer rhythm and melody that explodes into screaming, James Chance-esque saxophone, clearing the way and setting the tone for what is to come. Arriving 27 minutes later, Opus has been a staple of their live shows for some time, with it’s furious, howling, and once again klezmer-influenced riff coming full circle to the album opener and inspiring similar feelings of panic as a fire alarm at 4am. Also = who knew every self-appointed indie tastemaker was such an expert in obscure Hebrew folk music? I can’t say I really knew anything about klezmer a few days ago, but thank god we’re surrounded by such authorities on the subject.
But then with a track as synonymous to BC,NR as Sunglasses, any changes to the single that’s been so championed for the last two years was bound to ruffle feathers. Some changes are objectively for the better, the slow, sludgy intro of their live performances has crept into the album version and announces the arrival of the song proudly and defiantly. Some changes however have taken some time to grow on me, most notably the changes to Isaac’s lyrics. Gone is the iconic line “and f*ck me like you mean it this time“, along with most of the other highly quotable but thickly angst laden turns of phrase. And given time and reflection I can see why; it would be silly to not expect his writing and the deeply personal statements within to not have evolved and matured over the last 2 years- it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
The same is true for the new take on Athens, France, the new subdued mix and lyrical stylings suggest a maturity that could be taken ever so slightly personally by anyone favouring the previous, more angst heavy cut. Still present though is the Slint infused, threatening melancholia simmering beneath the surface, and while the wonderful imagery of “sourdough daily bread” is gone, the addition of “I am very young and working on the glow up” more than makes up for it.
Is it worth the wait? Definitely. Did it live up to expectations? Well, it’s disappointed and thrilled in equal measure amongst those who have been waiting for this since 2019. God bless those who discovered them on release, sans hype and full of wonder. But really, something like For the First Time was always unlikely to reach the levels of originality and unpredictability of what BC,NR have excelled at so far in their live assaults.
And that’s okay. This is their first album, delayed and disrupted by Covid-19 on top of all of the teething troubles of a band embarking on their first major project. The more time that I’ve spent with it, the more I’ve overcome my uncertainty and found myself really enjoying it. The production on all tracks is stellar, and if you’re unhappy with changes in the lyrics then guess what? The old songs still exist! My lasting impression of it can only really be that if this is Black Country, New Road at their first steps, God help anyone still in the race when they learn to run.