Understated Classics #5: A Weekend In The City by Bloc Party

A Weekend In The City: Background

This is the youngest album I have chosen for this series. I try to pick albums that are at least ten years old but every now and then, I will think of an album that matches the sort of things I want to write about. That’s the case here. A Weekend in the City is an unusual album that, in a reversal of the old adage, is “easy to love but hard to admire”. Nevertheless I do love and admire it, and I would like to share my thoughts about it with you.

A Weekend in the City is the difficult second album from Bloc Party. It followed hard on the heels of their debut Silent Alarm. For many, Silent Alarm is the superior album and perhaps for sheer visceral thrills and exuberance it is. However, what A Weekend in the City has that its predecessor lacks is a sense of scale and life experience. If you are a rock star, you can get agitated and vent in three-minute squally post-punk guitar songs. If you are an ordinary human being, you’re going to need a little bit more. With A Weekend in the City, Bloc Party give us a bit more.

While Silent Alarm rocks out with its bleached white artwork and its manifesto of solving the world’s problems one three-minute blast at a time (War? Helicopter; Doomed Romance? So Here We Are; Global Warming? Price of Gas; etc, etc); A Weekend in the City instead sets its sights deeper and darker, evoking in its artwork the dark chill of driving at night in cities – lonely but not alone.

Towards The Dark Heart Of Saturday Night

At first this appears to be ‘second album syndrome’ writ large. The story is usually this. An energetic band gets saddled with touring a successful snappy debut album. They become introspective and pretentious, and release a dark and downbeat second album. The record company tries to market with adjectives like “brave” and “challenging”. The fans go looking for another successful snappy debut album.

The songs on A Weekend in the City are deeper and more three-dimensional than you’d expect from a band with second-album blues. Opener Song for Clay is a corker, going from weedy falsetto to a full-on rock-out in the space of three and a half minutes. Once up and running it barely pauses for breath. This means that it could be any given song on Silent Alarm, but Song for Clay has emotion packed in too. It is creepy, angry, and resigned all in one. The line “East London is a vampire / it sucks the joy right out of me” is delivered in such a cathartic way that it transcends whatever it might actually refer to or mean.

The next track Hunting for Witches is a tour-de-force track that updates Helicopter with samplers, war on terror paranoia, and includes a brilliant swipe at the Daily Mail. While it does not pack as much of a punch as Song for Clay, it does something that pop music often does not do: take difficult events and try to make sense of them.

Waiting for the 7.18 name checks sudoku and the northern line. It also features a great line about wanting to “get the sadness out of those molars”. I find that the way that the chorus of “give me moments / not hours or days” bursts into the middle eight of “let’s drive to Brighton on the weekend” is really affecting and masterfully done.

The B-sides Are Brilliant Too

I must admit The Prayer is not my favourite Bloc Party track. Spoilt and over the top, it too would sit well amid the ear-worms of Silent Alarm. When issued as a single it had some great B-sides. One is one of the best songs that Bloc Party has ever made: England. It is about a gay man who was kicked to death in a London Park. Sample lyric: “they kicked the back of his head like a ball… they filmed the beating on their mobile phones”. It is not cheery material but allayed to a delicate mournful guitar chime, it packs a powerful emotional punch.

Returning to the album, Uniform is its cerebral and emotional core. Sprawling over five and a half minutes, it decries the emptiness of modern life. Sample lyrics include: “you can be happy just play dumb”, “we tell ourselves we’re different” etc. For a while this song was my own personal anthem. This song is not that dark or difficult at all, nor is it a million miles from anything on Silent Alarm, but its structure and subject matter make it feel a million years on from that first collection of songs.

After that a song about the highs and lows of cocaine is something of a letdown. Nevertheless, On manages to combine the dramatic subject matter with an interesting musical arrangement. The drums are excellent. Even better is how a cascade of guitar drones emerges out of the middle eight then into a string section underpinning a last repeat of the chorus. That whole section is beautiful.

Where is home? is about racism and is the most uncomfortable song on the album. Musically, it follows the pattern set by Hunting for Witches, but at a slower pace. There’s a fantastic remix of it by Burial on the Flux 12”. That remix that was my introduction to the wonders of dubstep.

Unconventional Love Songs

Next comes a brace of love songs. Kreuzberg could easily have sat on Silent Alarm, though it would have raised a few eyebrows with its tales of the emotional dangers of casual sex (“After sex / the bitter taste / been fooled again / the search continues”). I think it’s a gay love song (the hauptbanhof area of Berlin mentioned in the song is a well known cruising ground) but the message that casual sex is not edifying is universal for people of all sexual orientations. Also universal is the tale of teenage regret outlined in I Still Remember with its tale of gallivanting along the canal in the school holidays – all done to a wonderfully cheesy 80s guitar figure. It tantalises with its recounting of fingers almost touching, heavy heartbeats and that kept tie. It is a shame that the most upbeat and playful on the album has to be shot through with such regret and nostalgia. Sometimes the worst thing to be told is “I’d have let you if you asked me”.

Some editions of the album have Flux next. As it foreshadows the misstep of their third album Intimacy, I choose to ignore it. Instead we have Sunday, a sweet song that promises to “love you in the morning” when we’re “still hung-over and still strung out”. It is about the joys of just going out and having fun despite the problems in the world. Of enjoying the comfort of simply having someone to be there with. It provides some relief, but after the earlier darkness it doesn’t quite ring true. It’s a light to shine above the gloom but it’s too little, too late.

It’s rumoured that the aforementioned England was going to be the final track. SRXT is almost as melancholy as that would have been. The title refers to Seroxat, an antidepressant alleged to cause suicidal thoughts in teenagers that it was prescribed to. The song is not just about depression in young people but also the awkwardness of those years between child and adult. It is hard to tell whether the suicide related is successful or not (or is it something else? Is the narrator running away?) so the album ends on a weird ambivalent note. It’s simultaneously melancholy, disturbing, and quite brilliant, albeit in a despondent way.

A Weekend in the City is truly an understated classic – an affecting and tumultuous emotional journey through the darker side of modern life. I listen to it and become thankful for the things I have, it makes me resolve to do better and be happier. What more could you ask for from an album?

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· Understated Classics, Bloc Party, Music, Rock, Ten

⇠ J. G. Ballard, The Crystal World

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