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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Album Review: Black Country, New Road: For the first time

Fred Waine takes a deep dive into the intertextuality and the frenzied musicology of the London collective's debut album.

TW: mention of sexual coersion

It must be near impossible to listen to Black Country, New Road’s debut album For the first time without being instantly struck by the sheer volume of references from the band’s singer and lyricist Isaac Wood. Over the course of the record’s 40-minute runtime, he mentions or alludes to no less than 30 culturally relevant institutions or individuals (yes, I counted them), ranging from Nutribullets, the UE BOOM, and the Cirque Du Soleil, to micro-influencers and roadmen. There’s clearly an odd mix of objects, brands, and influences floating round in Isaac’s consciousness, the breeding grounds for his idiosyncratic lyrical subjects; at one point he even breaks out into the ironic refrain “references, references, references,” offering a glimpse into the hyperactive mind of the 21st-century songwriter.

Musical touchstones are there, too, as present in For the first time’s lyrical content as its sonic makeup: on ‘Track X’, Isaac makes a romantic gesture “in front of black midi” and dances to Jerskin Fendrix; on ‘Science Fair’, he characterises his own band as “the world’s second-best Slint tribute act”; ‘Sunglasses’ namechecks Richard Hell, Scott Walker, and Kanye West. 

As is evident from this never-ending stream of reference points, Black Country, New Road are an intensely self-aware band, who, unlike many of their contemporaries, avoid taking themselves too seriously. The group formed in 2018, following the dissolution of previous iteration Nervous Conditions, after a series of sexual assault allegations were made against their original frontman. Ever since, BC, NR have (alongside the aforementioned black midi, their pals from South London) been heralded time and time again by music critics as the ‘ones to watch’, the best new thing on the British ‘post-punk’ scene.

Yet the band have never shown signs of believing their own hype – perhaps wary from experience of how quickly everything can fall to pieces. Instead, BC, NR weaponize and satirise the UK music press’ attempts to put them on a pedestal, managing simultaneously to play jokingly into journalistic tropes (such as the Slint comparison) and represent down to a tee the confused identity of the modern-day music-loving adolescent.

Black Country: industry; the Brothers Grimm; finding the flaw in someone you liked; technological dystopia; the Zoltar machine; getting lost; Scandanavian crime drama; bad lager; social isolation; unimaginative writing; being let down; the year 2018; wasted potential.

Besides the esotericism of Isaac’s lyrics, the feature that most defines For the first time is its musical diversity. Black Country, New Road’s members (of which there are seven) tend to be part of at least one other band – violinist Georgia Ellery is one half of the experimental electronic duo Jockstrap, saxophonist Lewis Evans creates lo-fi pop under the moniker Good With Parents, Charlie Wayne also drums with indie outfit Ugly – and these diverse experiences manifest themselves on the album. ‘Instrumental’ and ‘Opus’, the two tracks on the record which have until now only been heard live, favour non-Western instrumentalization, drawing on West African polyrhythms and Jewish klezmer music; yet the band recontextualise these influences, so that the songs retain an underlying grit and are allowed eventually to crescendo into classic post-rock climaxes, led by Luke Mark’s chilling lead guitar.

The folkish hook on ‘Track X’, the LP’s most melancholic number, sounds like the riff from ‘Sunglasses’ if it had been passed through a phase-shifting device found in Steve Reich’s basement; the psychedelic backing vocals, provided by Georgia and bassist Tyler Hyde, seem like something that you might glimpse in the background of a Super Furry Animals record.

Certain moments on the album, such as the ominous synth arpeggio with which May Kershaw underpins ‘Science Fair’, or the descending string/sax motif that haunts ‘Opus’, recall film scores or Broadway –  BC, NR are akin to bands like Sonic Youth and The Flaming Lips in the breadth and ambition of their sound. That said, the sparser sections are played with expert restraint, as is best exemplified on the gentle math-rock coda appended to the album version of ‘Athens, France’. In short, For the first time never dwells for too long on a single timbre, dynamic, or motif.

New Road: breaking a bad habit; upcycling; a new jacket; Maya Angelou and Déwé Gorodé; quitting a shit job; minimal water damage; GCSE summer; second chances; Jurby, Isle of Man; half-time oranges; being invincible in these sunglasses; making it through a tute; hope.

Much has been made on the various online BC, NR fan pages of Isaac’s decision to alter his lyrics on the album versions of ‘Athens, France’ and ‘Sunglasses’, initially released in 2019 as hugely popular singles. The changed lines have apparently provided a stumbling block for some loyal fans’ enjoyment of For the first time. But these alterations haven’t been made on a whim or as part of some bid to ‘keep things fresh’ on the album – this is Black Country, New Road at their self-referential best. Where before, Isaac sang openly about a particularly uncomfortable sexual experience he endured, he now laments “[writing] the words I’ll one day wish that I had never said/Now all that I became must die before the forum thread”; where he previously adopted his lover’s voice and urged himself to “fuck me like you mean it”, he now makes reference to a far more unsettling, Dangerous Liaisons-esque scenario, in which he is being blackmailed to “burn what’s left of all the cards you kept”.

Similarly, no references are superficial (no matter how the Independent’s music reporter, who frames ‘Sunglasses’ as some sort of manifesto ‘in praise of’ Kanye and malt whisky, would have it) – Black Country, New Road’s universe is far more interesting, far less black-and-white than that (no matter what the monochrome album art might lead you to believe). Isaac’s nods to mediocre theatre and the Fonz, his choice of persona, are deliberate and meaningful. When he repurposes a lyric from Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Motion Sickness’ on ‘Athens, France’ (a truly brilliant bit of intertextual alt-rock songwriting that the same Independent hack had the audacity to describe as “off”), it is not done for the sheer thrill, but because Phoebe’s description of her own toxic relationship with Ryan Adams resonates with Isaac’s grimly similar experience. 

The songs that have now been crystallised on For the first time have always existed, and will always exist, in a state of perpetual evolution – they talk to each other, to their own predecessors, and to the rest of the cultural sphere in which they exist. As long as BC, NR still play ‘Sunglasses’ and ‘Athens, France’ live, Isaac will continue to reformulate his lyrics, or Luke will decide to add in a new guitar introduction that sounds like My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Sometimes’, or May will introduce a new, barely perceptible layer of synth to the mix. Black Country, New Road, with their seven, multi-talented members, and their position at the heart of the Brixton Windmill scene, challenge notions of what songs are supposed to be, of what a band is supposed to be. They’re exactly what the musical canon of 21st-Century Britain needs.

For the first time: sexual naivety; Back To The Point; public speaking; Parkrun; teeth clashing; The Rijksmuseum; the touching of bow to string; cultural relativism; Freshers’ week; non-Latin alphabets; showing your insecurities; Proust; a child babbling; pressing play on your new favourite record.

Image credit: Photo by Asaf R on Unsplash.

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