This article was first published on January 23, 2017 and later slightly re-edited for the album’s 15th anniversary on January 17, 2022.
It’s all about the ‘reality check.’ There comes a time in pretty much every young adult’s life where he or she had to face it. A certain point that makes you realize that life is not like you thought it might be, a brief moment of realization and reflection, one that helps to set certain things in perspective. It could be anything; the end of the relationship with your teenage love, finishing university, leaving your hometown, struggling to find a purpose in life or whatever makes you question things. Maybe it’s a book, a film, meeting a certain person or even a good old-fashioned record. I don’t like to unnecessarily over-glorify the importance of A Weekend In The City as a crucial life-changing experience in my life here but … well. In the end such a reality check often happens as a mixture of things. Without going into too much detail I can honestly say that the second album by Bloc Party played an important part for me in that process. It was the soundtrack to my reality check and it turned out to partly be even prophetic in terms of what happened to the world in the ten years ever since.
There is no necessity to rehash the entire biography of the London four-piece right here since I already did that a few years ago when we celebrated the 10th anniversary of their critically acclaimed first full-length Silent Alarm. The stakes were high for Bloc Party back then following the release of one of the decade’s most important debut albums. Instead of playing it safe they decided to aim big and ditched producer Paul Epworth in favour of Jacknife Lee. The lo-fi post-punk days were gone, instead the band aimed for a fuller and bigger sound, while freeing themselves from expectations and the way too tight ‘indie music’ corset (in a time when that weird genre was state-of-the-art). Years later, following his not so harmonic departure from the band, drummer Matthew Tong would state that leading man Kele Okereke took that whole thing way too seriously for a guy in his early twenties while he was more in it for the fun. Thank god, Kele did. Back in late 2006 those tensions weren’t that tricky as the band had a run, straight from the tour into the studio and back on the road. In retrospect it feels even weirder that they came up with such an ambitious and cohesive second full-length. And while the slightly over-the-top character of the big sounding A Weekend In The City was too posh for most of the cool indie kids and music press back then, it is, indeed a lot braver and lyrically stronger record than Silent Alarm. Was that a subjective evaluation? Well, maybe.
‘Oh how our parents suffered for nothing,
Live the dream like the 80s never happened.’
from ‘Song For Clay (Disappear Here)’
I’ll tell you why A Weekend In The City remained my personal favourite, even after all those years. Unlike a lot of albums in recent history it manages to tell a story from start to finish with different twists and turns; it surprises you with unexpected musical ideas, dramatic composition and lyrical tales covering up a variety of themes that are both – ugly and beautiful. Bloc Party‘s second full-length is a poetic reflection on life in the big city with all the creeping societal decline that was already sensible back then. It reflects on the desperate longing for love and meaning in a sea of anonymity, uprising violence and a general lack of perspective, suddenly realizing that the promises of the older generation might remain unfulfilled. Instead, those youthful dreams get slowly replaced by a certain anxiety, one that is numbed by drugs, parties, sex and whatever distracts you. In an odd way Okereke reflects on this battle in a way that is both – honest and somehow poetic. ‘Tonight make me unstoppable’ he literally begs the heavens in the record’s leading single The Prayer, an electronic/ indie/ wave bastard that made quite clear from the start that this one isn’t Silent Alarm Reloaded.
Over the course of these eleven tracks the protagonist stumbles through the city, not chronologically but in different phases of his urban existence. From the boring magazine launch party (Song For Clay) to a desperately needed short weekend trip out of the concrete jungle and towards Brighton (Waiting For The 7.18). From a night of cocaine-praising trance (On) to the lonely ‘walk of shame’ back home after another failed sexual affair (Kreuzberg). ‘I had decided at 25, that something must change’ reflects Okereke in the track named after Berlin’s infamous hipster district. His alter ego is as much tired of his lifestyle as he is trapped inside it. Bloc Party‘s second album is also one that makes this delayed ‘teenage angst’ a subject of the discussion. When my parents were 25 they were already married, had two kids and steady jobs, something that slowly became unrealistic for the so-called generation of millennials. A Weekend In The City is also a documentation of that.
There’s always more than meets the eye
For me, Uniform, marks the heart and soul of this record, not just because it is placed right in the middle of it. The over five minute long tune is a reckoning of Okereke with the so-called alternative lifestyle of an even younger generation. ‘Commerce dressed up as rebellion’ he sings in a reflective way, wondering why all the kids look the same, don’t stand up for anything. Maybe because they made themselves comfortable in the neo-liberal safety their parents created for them. A few minutes into the song the desperation turns into anger, the band picks up speed as Okereke moves into the role of the desperate youth, screaming out all his anger, desolation and confusion, realizing that there’s indeed more than meets the eye. ‘No one can be trusted over the age of 14’… ‘I’ve gotten so good at lying to myself’ … this entire segment is a testament of baldly truth and that makes it so relatable and significant.
‘We’re finding it hard to break the mould,
We’re finding it hard to be alone,
We’re finding it hard to have time by ourselves,
We have nothing at all to say!’
It doesn’t end here, the lyrical narrative explores various fields like the fear of terrorism caused by hysteric media (Hunting For Witches), racism within the British society (Where Is Home?) and confusing feelings regarding your own sexuality (I Still Remember) that might have happened at a time when Okereke himself wasn’t so sure about it either. Compare this variety of themes to other ‘indie bands’ back then and you get an idea about why I picked this one. I mean, during the same time the KAISER CHIEFS released Ruby. Do I need to say more? Those stories even continued on the excellent B-Sides (yes, that was still a thing 10 years ago) the band released back then as they range from the fear of getting beaten up on the street (England), to domestic violence (Emma Kate’s Accident), existential questioning about life choices (Rhododendrons) up to a longing to escape from all the technology that’s surrounding us (Vision Of Heaven). There are many hidden treasures here and you are happily invited to dig for them in the World Wide Web (hint: try this one).
From a musical point of view I never got all the criticism regarding the party posh and overloaded sound of A Weekend In The City. Bloc Party were never a band that stood still, I said that a few times before and Kele also agreed to me on this. This second LP documents a hunger for complexity and adventure. It still feels as if Russell Lissack tried to find as many ways as possible to have his guitar sound not like a guitar at all. It channels a variety of emotions through different patterns, from sad melancholia to angry hate. In his best moments it manages to combine both within one track – Where Is Home? and the already mentioned Uniform are the best examples for it. And it’s not all plain desperation in here as hope glimpses through every now. Sunday, an uplifting love song towards the celebrates the morning after the party when you and your lover hang out in your apartment before eventually heading for a walk in the park. Like many in our generation the protagonist is longing for inner peace via the safety and comfortableness of a relationship, blocking out the harsh reality.
But the album doesn’t end here as Bloc Party decided to go for a bittersweet sort-of ‘happy end’ instead. The calm SRXT sees the protagonist heading for a walk into the countryside, reflecting on his life, family and precious moments that happened. ‘I called up Eugene, told him I was drowning’ sings Okereke in the most tender way as he discusses ‘a fight that never ends’. You suddenly realize that this not a peaceful walk outside the city, it’s a farewell by a character suffering from depression, one that decided to end his life before even reaching the age of thirty. It’s based on a true story as the singer told back then in interviews. There were no signs, the young man apparently had ‘everything’ but it wasn’t enough. As the choirs, strings and guitars break loose it feels like a relief. Death marks the exit strategy from all that nonsense and contradiction that happened on the ten tracks before. It might not be the one solution, but it’s an option. And facing this subject with dignity and in an almost romantic way is something you don’t see every day. And now you might get an idea what that sort of record can do to a young boy at the age of 22.
‘If you want to know what makes me sad
Well it’s hope, the endurance of faith
A battle that lasts a lifetime
A fight that never ends.’
Change in an age of contradiction
Flash forward to the here and now. I am still alive and so is Kele Okereke. Bloc Party ultimately changed their character in the course of 2016’s Hymns album with Okereke and Lissack being the remaining members of the A Weekend In The City line-up. The music has gotten softer, more spiritually and the lyrics less obvious. It changed like it always did while Okereke recently became a father and a bit more settled. The anger and urgency has left Bloc Party a while ago and but judging from the first single of their comeback album Alpha Games (out this April), it looks like that vibe might actually return. I am also still here, not married yet and no kids either. My life plan got a bit more concrete but calling it stable in a traditional sense would be a shameless overestimation. Uncertainty became the norm and although many folks in their early 30s might deny it, I can sense it in a lot of talks. We all embraced the contradiction.
While I originally wrote these lines Donald J. Trump held his inauguration while Theresa May started to discuss the Brexit. Capitalism crumbles and so does democracy, racism is still here and it looks like we’re facing a ‘civil war’ between open minded, liberal and mostly young people and elder more reactionary forces who are frustrated by being left behind and therefore also afraid of change. In the end we’re all in this together as we come to the conclusion that the system that once benefited us is not working anymore. Yet, we are often still afraid to speak it out loud and actively create an alternative. We are the transitional generation and we have to find a way to change so many things while also still being the protagonist from A Weekend In City after all. Terrorism, the decline of society, a lack of perspective – In many ways Bloc Party saw it all coming. I’ve come to realize that over the past years.
So, what did this album to me after all, you might ask. It helped me to realize certain things, to be more reflective with society and take a closer look at the people surrounding me. It taught me to question everything, be angry and stubborn and speak your mind from time to time, it helped me to stick with what I love and what I’m passionate about, just to avoid the dangers of being stuck in a life I have no control over. Oh, and it made me quite immune against all that shallow big city life party/ hipster lifestyle and stick to the things that matter instead. Find something and someone you love and hold on to it. Sounds quite ‘hippie’ but sometimes it’s that easy. I did not realize it back then but it changed my perspective, my taste, probably a few minor life choices and therefore I am still truly grateful and that’s what this text was basically about; a musical ‘reality check’ even if it might not be the coolest one in music history. But not caring about this is just another lesson that comes from growing up and I sincerely hope you’ll find something similar, no matter in what artistic field. Because even when times seem miserable like they do now they won’t change without ambition and personal beliefs that need to be shaped first. And that’s where such a ‘reality check’ could come in handy, right?