Black Country, New Road were a thing of mystery. A septet of gifted musicians capable of guttural noise and odd moments of beauty, reticent to share much about their actual lives online or in interviews. Like their compatriots in Black Midi, the band drummed up a fervent fanbase and a swell of breathless press attention based, primarily, on their storied live sets. When they only had one or two tracks to their name, Black Country, New Road were already being hailed as one of the most exciting, transformative young bands to come out of not just the Speedy Wunderground/Windmill ecosystem, but out of this new generation of genre-mutating rock artists overall. For a while they existed in shadows and word-of-mouth, each tormented multi-part single a new twisted look at their world.
On a practical level, their debut album For The First Time is not a thing of mystery. It’s made up of six tracks, four of which have been released over the last several years. If you’ve been paying attention, you may already be deeply familiar with about 27 minutes of the album’s 40. But whether or not you’re acquainted with the band’s music or narrative to this point, hearing their early days collected here underlines that the songs therein in are still as enigmatic and transfixing as the their initial reputation promised. There are legible threads and recognizable patterns across the album, but Black Country, New Road’s first full-length statement becomes a thing wholly unto themselves, a document of restless creativity and incisive minds processing an era of too much mediation and stimulation.
For the last several years, the term “post-punk” has been thrown around frequently when describing all these arty, hard-to-classify bands coming out of the UK and Ireland. Black Country, New Road are probably the most resistant to such confines out of any of their peers. There’s a free-form, post-rock experimentalism to their sound, but there’s also a brooding organized chaos, a wry sense of humor, and an omnivorous curiosity about music. Isaac Wood’s distinctive vocals are, obviously, a defining element of the group, but so too are Lewis Evans’ saxophone and Georgia Ellery’s violin; while Evans’ playing sometimes gives BCNR’s songs a jazz-damaged inflection, he and Ellery are also steeped in the Jewish folk traditions of klezmer. Keyboardist May Kershaw is more classically inclined. They all prove themselves adept at caustic distortion flares and unnerving crescendoes — the entirety of For The First Time feels like being guided through a maelstrom of the band’s own making.
Musically speaking, Black Country, New Road achieve that with a careful sequencing of the album’s handful of tracks. In a sense, all these singles could just as easily be taken as one roiling, intense whole — one big series of frantic ideas and bug-eyed proclamations from a band that, too, presents as one complicated organism. Rises and falls litter the album, and you could just be swept up in each current, each small moment of brightness and the next sputtering guitar freakout, without the delineation of song structures. Improvisation is, of course, crucial to the group’s DNA.
But there is still something of an arc. “Instrumental” is a twirling overture, before early single “Athens, France” plays like a reintroduction, a mission statement for an album designed as a real-time portrait of Black Country, New Road as a nascent group. The haunted “Science Fair” and the frayed catharsis of “Sunglasses” form the album’s corroded middle passage, until “Track X” and “Opus” offer a comedown that is by turns elegiac and eerily mournful respectively.
Even if you listened to the singles closely outside the context of the album, they still feel surprising and unpredictable as the album unfolds and collapses into itself and builds back up again and again. As open-ended as Black Country, New Road’s songwriting is, so too does For The First Time eschew simple resolutions or clarifications. Harsh punctuation and frazzled interjections abound, but ultimately it is a work of ellipses — whether in documenting a still-evolving band or in translating the unease of growing up in a fragmented digital era.
Accordingly, Wood’s lyrics can sometimes feel like stream of consciousness later cohered into some allusive tale, with sentiments ranging from absurd to profound. He quavers and drawls and growls his way through these songs, sometimes delivering punchlines with a dark gravity that, given the context, is presumably self-aware. “I am very young/ But I am working/ Working on the glow-up,” he claims early on; “I’m more than adequate/ Leave Kanye out of this… I’m more than adequate/ Leave my daddy’s job out of this,” he argues later. “I told you I loved you in front of Black Midi,” he recalls, a line that might be a cute shoutout to their friends or, as far as we know, could really be a pivotal moment from Wood’s actual life.
The most powerful moments on the album are the lyrics that sit in that in-between, hard to pin down, sly and cutting but also poignant. In “Science Fair,” Wood sings of meeting a girl at an actual science fair, but turns the banal into something evocative: “And she was so impressed/ I could make so many things/ Catch on fire.” The same goes for the depiction of a certain small-town affluence and falling into the rhythms of those who came before us in “Sunglasses”: “I become her father/ And complain of mediocre theatre in the daytime/ And ice in single malt whiskey at night/ Of rising skirt hems and lowering IQs/ And things just aren’t built like they used to be/ The absolute pinnacle of British engineering.” As he reiterates, “I am invincible in these sunglasses,” the desperation for a shield, a new identity, is tangible.
“References, references, references” Wood eventually growls in “Science Fair.” For The First Time doesn’t necessarily feel like the kind of album that has a manifesto, but maybe that lyric comes close. “What a time to be alive,” the Fonz, six-part Danish crime dramas, an album title nodding to Dave Brubeck — pop culture runs through the fractured communication of the album. There are not one, but two Bruce Springsteen quotes. “Oh I was born to run,” but “it’s Black Country out there,” Wood tells us, the recurring use of the name never seemingly a literal mention of England’s Black Country but to some foreboding wreckage over the horizon. In closer “Opus” he is “wheelie-ing down Thunder Road tonight,” and it sounds both childlike and more apocalyptic than anything the Boss ever wrote.
Black Country, New Road have been described as eroding the borders between high and low culture, jazz solos abutting breakdowns with hints of hardcore, colliding aesthetics we’ve partitioned into sublime and profane. But that kind of mixture has long since become a generational lingua franca, and what For The First Time becomes is an album of addled minds. It’s pop culture detritus strewn about as totems from daily life and scattered memories, and, equally, it’s seven young musicians searching for a sound in all kinds of places. They’ve already suggested that For The First Time documents who they were at the beginning and that they are already exploring other ideas. If there’s one discernible conclusion from the dense, immersive tangle Black Country, New Road have created so far, maybe that’s it: There is no sitting still in their world, only the constant process of becoming something else.
For The First Time is out 2/5 on Ninja Tune.
• Foo Fighters’ Medicine At Midnight.
• The Weather Station’s Ignorance.
• The Staves’ Good Woman.
• Psychedelic Porn Crumpets’ SHYGA! The Sunlight Mound.
• John Carpenter’s Lost Themes III: Alive After Death.
• Aaron Lee Tasjan’s Tasjan Tasjan Tasjan.
• Femi Kuti’s Stop The Hate.
• Made Kuti’s For(e)ward.
• Editrix’s Tell Me I’m Bad.
• Sun June’s Somewhere.
• TV Priest’s Uppers.
• Jane Birkin’s Oh! Pardon Tu Dormais….
• Pooh Shiesty’s Shiesty Season.
• Miss Grit’s Impostor EP.
• Octo Octa’s She’s Calling EP.