LABEL: NINJA TUNE
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Explosions happen when seven friends from Cambridgeshire concoct a potion of post-punk, post-rock, and jazz at their local science fair.
Instinctively, almost on principle, I love Black Country, New Road. For The First Time is an exuberant cacophony, charged with inventiveness and chemistry. One of the best compliments that can be paid to this album is that it is the work of a band of friends. There’s a democracy and shared identity in the playing and arrangements. It’s an album that invites trust because its creators trust each other.
God bless a band that raise their hands to volunteer for the awkward squad. God bless a band that can start an album with a drum solo, a layered saxophone and an irritating keyboard riff and build it into a raucous overture and call it ‘instrumental’. God bless a band prepared to work to their own scruffy logic. Is it jazz? Is it punk? Isn’t it just a miracle that people, young people from the English suburbs, should still want to make albums like this? Isn’t it in some ways a relief? Isn’t it? Isn’t it? They do still make them like they used to.
There’s a danger for a middle-aged indie kid who wants to cheer along the new. What’s my game here? Am I applauding because I can still squeeze into a comforting frame of reference exploring the 6 songs on For The First Time? I was never into Slint, the band name-checked as Black Country, New Road’s greatest influence. 1991, the year Slint peaked, meant The Almighty, Metallica, Suicidal Tendencies and Faith No More to me. These songs still remind me in ways of so many 90s bands that I got to later who taught me; Morphine, Deus, Gallon Drunk, Bark Psychosis, Pavement, Royal Trux, Nick Cave. In unequivocally loving For The First Time, am I just smoking my nostalgia hit but not inhaling?
Black Country, New Road sort-of confront this as an issue too. They devote a track on the album, a reworked version of their single ‘Sunglasses’, to a story of a middle-aged man appropriating the iconography of cool to distract from the ways his worldview is monopolised by privilege and fear. The song feels like a sly commentary on the psychology of Brexit with the repeated phrase of ‘I am so ignorant now, with all that I’ve learnt’. I hope it is enough to declare I know I always look ridiculous, never invincible, in sunglasses.
For The First Time, as its name implies, is more originally wild than wildly original. This is the sound of a band collecting themselves, drawing on their influences and working it out. Black Country, New Road are working it out so well. They’ve got that indie slink. They know how to play the lo-fi sexy blues. They keep you guessing as to what is ironic and what is heartfelt. They’ve got the confidence to change course from post-punk riffs to an electronica interlude before a heavy funk crescendo in a song. They rock. They matter.
For the middle aged fan like myself, what I instinctively love about Black Country, New Road is not that they are a nostalgic throwback, but that they are a present reminder of the power of music to change lives. Drawing on memory, with hope, I hear this album and I believe that right now, somewhere in England, some teenager is getting their doors blown wide open by For The First Time. It’s happening again. Gathering in gangs, a new set of angular young people are walking through the door and Black Country, New Road will help form their soundtrack. May they be played more on Radio 1 than Radio 6. May the middle aged get close enough to cheer them through while leaving space enough to not tread on their feet.