Black Country, New Road’s debut, For the First Time, was easily one of the most interesting records in 2021. A number of features made it stand out – its ability to pair innovation and traditional sound to create something new, the boldness of the construction of its musical structures, the finesse in the interplay of sounds and instruments, the mix of reflective moods and subtle irony in its lyrics. More than anything, it was a record full of ambition. Some of the things it had set out to do might not have been fully realised, but to even attempt them was an impressive deed in a time when the music industry clings ever more often to the easiest path. Now the London-based seven-piece are back with a follow-up record, Ants From Up There, which takes all of those ambitions and pushes them even further. The result is a breathless cavalcade of an album, all the more intense for how reflective it sounds in places, which does not shy away from its imperfections but embraces them, deliberately weaves them into the fabric of its tracks, and turns them into strengths.
All of the most daring elements which were to be found in the debut are also present here, amplified even further. In the era of fleeting attention, Ants From Up There commands its listener to confront a stretch of longer tracks (past the deceptively chaotic intro, only three are below five minutes, and one of these, ‘Mark’s Theme,’ in itself almost a summary of the album in the way that it teeters between solemn and playful, is an instrumental), imposing and articulated in their structure, almost chamber music for the twenty-first century. It is the space these songs need, and it is refreshing to see an album with the courage to take it, without any compromise, down to the amazing cavalcade that is the closer, ‘Basketball Shoes,’ with its twelve minutes and a half, its many swings in pace and sound, its pulling together of threads that started unspooling at various points in the record’s downtime. It is hardly a surprise that this song has already attained semi-legendary status for those who have been following BC,NR in their live appearances. It is a song very few artists would dare write, and its earnestness and precision make it one of the most gripping tracks on the record.
Elsewhere, the breadth of voice this album possesses throughout takes on a more powerful, imposing nature, sweeping through with something ponderously anthemic to it which made me wonder what a film soundtrack written by this band would sound like (and regret that one does not yet exist). This is the case with tracks like ‘Haldern,’ and most of all, ‘Bread Song,’ which have a broadness of sound perfect for immersive listening, intensely evocative as each song builds up, deliberately stutters, or spreads out into a wave of intertwined voices. Nowadays, calling music retro evokes images of the ’80s, but BC,NR call out to suggestions which go much further back, to the ’40s and ’50s, expanding them, rethinking them, and breaking them open: so that some tracks on this album maintain the mellow lilt of country and swing while sounding intensely modern, even avant-garde. ‘Chaos Space Marine‘ is a perfect example of this, and it is perhaps not by chance that it is found right there, at the start of the record, catching the listener by surprise and making it clear that nothing of what comes next can be predicted. Likewise ‘The Place Where He Inserted the Blade,’ which has all the makings of the most classic of ballads but is driven in a completely different direction by almost-spoken voices and irregular rhythm patterns.
The complexity of construction, and ease with which it is delivered, throughout the record might evoke a Brian Eno or even a Philip Glass (there is something of the monumental to it, which keeps making my mind go back to the latter), but the album is also emotionally stark in a way that has its most remote ancestors in Cash and Cohen. A great deal of the credit for this must go to the vocals, which are beautifully expressive throughout, from the way in which they grow and shatter towards the end of ‘Snow Globes‘ (another outstanding track and a single for a very good reason) to the subtleness in which they convey the bitter irony of the lyrics of ‘Good Will Hunting‘ (a song about something, or someone, most of us probably know). The emotional heavy hitter of the record, at least in my opinion, is most likely another single, ‘Concorde,’ also an outstanding example of how the lyrics have an insightfulness and precision of language which makes them worthy of being called poetry. It is, indeed, an album which deserves to be listened to twice in a row, with different intent: once for the complexity, the layering, and the cleverness of the music, and one for the beauty and emotional intelligence of the words.
It would perhaps not be quite exact to claim that Black Country, New Road have delivered on the unspoken promise they had made with their first album. In truth, they have far exceeded it: not only has nothing been lost from their sound, but the bold parts have grown bolder, the strong parts have grown even more confident, the vulnerable parts have found the courage to expose themselves even further. It is an album that will elicit feelings in anyone who approaches it, and an experience both intimate and far-reaching.
Ants From Up There is released February 4th on Ninja Tune. Pre-Order & Pre-Save here.