black country, new road are a british post-punk/post-rock band from london. they are, or were, fronted by isaac wood, whose expressive vocals and neurotic lyrics were what drew me to the band through singles like athens, france and sunglasses. their first album, 2021’s for the first time took a while to grow on me, but it eventually became one of my favorite albums of the year.
the singles from ants from up there immediately demonstrated a radical shift in sound. none of the singles, indeed none of the songs on the album at all, sound anything like the hype-generating early singles sunglasses and athens, france. this is common for bands like black country, new road. they released the single version of athens, france in january 2019, more than two years before the release of for the first time. the song was no doubt workshopped in live performance even before they recorded it for the single. by the time the album came out, isaac wood had altered the lyrics to both athens, france and sunglasses. the new lyrics to athens, france now reference internet controversy over the song’s original opening lyrics:
she flies to paris, france, i come down in her childhood bed
she tries to fuck me, i pretend that i’m asleep instead
she loves pop culture, she has "thank u, next" stuck in her head
the cursed vultures give me sourdough, my daily bread
and i wanna find out
what it’s like
she flies to paris, france, i come down in her childhood bed
and write the words i'll one day wish that i had never said
now all that i became must die before the forum thread
the cursed vultures feed and spread the seeded daily bread
and i guess i found out
what it's like
this is one of the common reasons for the sophomore slump, besides the basic statistical phenomenon of regression to the mean. bands spend three or four or five years polishing their first album live, and then the label expects them to turn around another dozen tracks in just a year or two. it can be even worse if the band gets restless and changes their sound to escape the shadow of their early work that they now find themselves bored of.
we saw this restlessness even within for the first time. each song felt like a different possible version of "black country, new road." instrumental was a strange post-rock klezmer banger,.athens, france was an angular odd-time post-punk tune. science fair featured rambling speak-sung lyrics and a sinister instrumental building to discordant strings. sunglasses was a multi-part post-punk/prog/klezmer odyssey featuring some of the album's most detailed songwriting. track x took inspiration from steve reich's music for 18 musicians. opus returned to the high-energy klezmer-punk of the album opener.
restlessness helped them escape the tyranny of comparison to other post-punk/post-rock bands of frighteningly talented young musicians like the recent black midi, name-dropped in track x (alongside another british musician who got his start at the windmill in brixton, jerskin fendrix):
dancing to jerskin, i got down on my knees
i told you i loved you in front of black midi
or the venerable slint, who they name-dropped in science fair:
just to think i could've left the fair with my dignity intact
and fled from the stage with the world's second-best slint tribute act
this is to say: the fact that ants from up there is any good at all is a minor miracle, let alone that it is as incredible as it is. i was initially unimpressed by most of the singles, blinded by my disappointment that they didn’t sound more like sunglasses or athens, france. i was a fool.
chaos space marine, the first single and the album’s first full song, is an epic, orchestral prog-pop song about escapism through warhammer 40,000. its odd time signature string and horn ostinati recall for me sufjan stevens on illinois, while its lyrical themes of its narrator’s obsession destroying his relationship brought to mind the los campesinos! track straight in at 101. during my second full listen to the album, i walked down the street as the last bits of daylight faded from the sky and nearly cried in the middle of the street as isaac hollered
so i'm leaving this body
And I'm nevеr coming home again, yeah
i'll bury the axе here
between the window and the kingdom of men
the influences of mid/late-00s indie rock can be felt through the entire record. the band has mentioned in interviews becoming "obsessed" with arcade fire during the album's recording. that style of bombastic orchestral/chamber rock has been out of fashion for some time now, with most critically acclaimed bands of the last ten years preferring the stripped-back, lo-fi sound of early 90s indie rock pioneers such as dinosaur jr and pavement, or the angular early 80s post-punk and new wave of bands like gang of four and joy division. however, over ten years on from romance is boring and over fifteen years on from funeral, illinois, and apologies to the queen mary, black country, new road's take on these sounds don't come off as dated. this confirms one of my worst fears: 2000s nostalgia is fast descending upon us, and we would do best to prepare.
following chaos space marine is the third single, concorde. concorde fleshes out an album-long obsession with the concorde as a metaphor for his relationship. it's also mentioned in chaos space marine, basketball shoes, and the place where he inserted the blade. the concorde metaphor operates on two levels. in this song, the concorde is something beautiful and perfect that our narrator isn’t good enough for; it breaks the sound barrier high above while he is out of breath sprinting up a mountain just to catch a glimpse.
and you, like concorde
i came, a gentle hill racer
i was breathless upon every mountain
just to look for your light
simultaneously, it conveys the doomed nature of the relationship: no matter how perfect and beautiful, concorde was fundamentally unsustainable.
but, for less than a moment
we'd share the same sky
and then isaac will suffer
concorde will fly
the third full track and second single, bread song, is much quieter and slower than the previous two. it features gentle, wiry guitars and soft, swelling strings and horns, building up to the song’s central conceit: eating in bed as synecdoche for all the little conflicts that build up to the end of a relationship. so much of this album only works because of isaac wood’s incredible voice and delivery. the concepts can seem silly or overwrought when described like this, but isaac sings like its the end of the world as he says
i never felt the crumbs until you said
"this place is not for any man
nor particles of bread"
it's not just a conflict either. our narrator "never felt the crumbs," never knew that anything he was doing was wrong until it hurt someone he cared about.
the fourth single, snow globes, appears as the second-to-last track on the album. it begins with gentle guitars and builds to a cacophony of drums and violin, as isaac builds to screaming
oh, god of weather, henry knows
snow globes don't shake on their own, ah
a reference to catherine of aragon pleading for henry viii’s forgiveness from god. the cacophony dissipates in a way that feels like finally giving up when you realize all your struggle isn’t going to change anything.
one common thread between the incarnation of black country, new road found on ants from up there and the one found on for the first time, through to their influences in bands like slint, is song structure. few songs here have typical pop song verse-chorus structures. songs like snow globes, bread song, haldern, and chaos space marine rather build gradually from quiet intros to loud, dramatic, bombastic crescendos.
between the singles is a collection of other incredible songs. good will hunting returns somewhat to the catchy orchestral pop palette of chaos space marine, this time with more conventional song structure and guitars that feel almost country-esque with the way they bend and slide.
haldern, another song written before for the first time, features somber guitars and twinkling pianos. an odd time signature ostinato between the violin and the trumpets holds as the song builds to an enormous guitar and drum swell beneath isaac’s tortured wailing of
but you burned the final question then
and you rose out through the cеiling
mark’s theme is a saxophone-centric interlude written in honor of saxophone player lewis evans’ late uncle. it feels the most to me like many tracks on sufjan stevens michigan and illinois-era work.
the bob dylan song i’ve made up my mind to give myself to you, off his 2020 album rough and rowdy ways inspired the place where he inserted the blade. it is warm and welcoming, bouncy and relaxed, while it describes anxious overreaction to minor failure: being unable to follow instructions in a cooking video.
show me the place where he inserted the blade
i’ll praise the lord, burn my house
i get lost, i freak out
you come home and hold me tight
as if it never happened at all
so, clean your soup-maker and breathe in
your chicken, broccoli, and everything
And I know you’re tired
Well, I’m tired too
Oh, that every time I try to make lunch
For anyone else, in my head
I end up dreaming of you
And you come to me
the final single, basketball shoes, also ends the album. in interviews the band has said this song was their starting point for the style of the rest of the album. it clocks in at a gargantuan 12 minutes, a three part epic encompassing all the themes of the entire album. every other song is a small piece of this one. the first part has the gentle strums and epic swells of bread song and haldern. part two features the groovy riffs and hollered vocals of chaos space marine and good will hunting. part three brings the track to an epic conclusion, with isaac shouting at the top of his lungs about having a wet dream about charli xcx.
just before this album’s release, isaac wood announced that he was departing the band in a statement that was both surprising and entirely expected. the very rawness and vulnerability that made his lyrics and performances so compelling becomes a liability once you’re famous. we see it as early as the album versions of athens, france and sunglasses. we also see it on this album, with lyrics that are both more personal and more abstract than those on the first album. ants from up there is full of small details that make it feel personal and real, but paints the broad strokes in oblique metaphors and synecdoche, the lyrical equivalent of being shown a tiny zoomed-in section of a pointillist painting.
i can’t know what else isaac was dealing with, what else contributed to leaving his band just before the release of their highly anticipated second album. i trust that it had to have been awful, because decisions like that don’t get made on a whim. i hope black country, new road finds a way to keep making music without him. everyone else in the band are also phenomenal musicians and they deserve future success. and most of all, i hope isaac is okay, or that he finds a way to be okay. for all the excellent music he gave us, it’s the least he deserves.