Black Country, New Road are hard to describe. Some may say that they are the result of late Millennial/ early Gen Z ‘serious’ music culture, insinuating that they’re too avant garde and pretentious to be enjoyed. But others (such as myself) believe that this young outfit – originally from Cambridgeshire- have breathed new life into a British Rock scene that has become overwhelmingly dominated by popular artists such as The 1975, Bastille and Catfish and the Bottlemen. But you may be asking yourself, why do I think that?
Having been recorded over six days in March 2020 by producer Andy Savours, For The First Time is Black Country, New Road’s debut album, and follows two years of sporadically released singles: ‘Athens, France’, ‘Sunglasses’, ‘Science Fair’, and ‘Track X’. All of these tracks are present on the LP, which boasts two further songs, ‘Instrumental’ and ‘Opus’. These six tracks equate to a run time of 40 minutes, which musically speaking is reminiscent of projects taken by Pink Floyd in the seventies.
The LP kicks off with ‘Instrumental’, immediately taking listeners into a manic state of mind. The drums and saxophone transport to the film world of Whiplash. Yes, there is a saxophone in this band. And a violin. Not your typical rock band!
And no, don’t worry, J.K. Simmons is not present to shout at you for being 1/100 out of tempo! This is all the while the keyboard has you thrown back into a retro club scene. Now, this would all be too pretentious if it was not for the fact that their sound is hypnotic and moreish. It is jazz on copious amounts of steroids, and I am all for it!
‘Athens, France’ follows, and for the first time, listeners, it will be the first time that you hear the unique, beautiful but brutal vocals of Isaac Wood. Followers prior to this release will, however, notice that there are stark changes made by the band in the lyrics of the song. The single version of this song (which was originally called ‘Athen’s, France’, with the album version removing the possessive noun) contained these lyrics in the first verse:
“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”.BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD – ‘ATHEN’S, FRANCE’ (SINGLE VERSION)
The album version changes these lyrics to:
And Write the words I’ll one day wish that I had never said
Now that all I became must die before the forum threadBlack Country, NEW ROAD – ‘ATHENS, FRANCE’ (ALBUM VERSION)
In an interview with Daniel Dylan Wray in The Guardian, Wood commented that “Either they (the songs) change or we stop playing them”. Saxophonist Lewis Evans furthered this sentiment, “We’ve grown a lot. We feel like a new band.” It is hard to fathom the true meaning of the lyrics in the second version, but one thing is for certain when listening to the album version of this song you realise Black Country, New Road flourish when they are not fixed to a certain sound.
The track ‘Science Fair’ feels dystopic and gothic all at once. Its eeriness sounds like Kid A-era Radiohead, something that the band should feel extremely proud of. Conversely, ‘Track X’ later on in the record flips that sound on its head and the band becomes far lighter in tone and features delightful backing vocals. It is folkish in a sense, highlighting Black Country, New Road’s incredible range. Emily Bootle is more than right when claiming that this is a highlight on the LP.
In spite of the final track being called ‘Opus’, and itself sustaining the glorious mania of this project. The real magnum opus of this record is ‘Sunglasses’. Musically, it is a phenomenal piece of work and never fails to give me the chills (even if the band has altered the sound dramatically from the original single). But, it is in the lyrics where this song really shows its mettle. Wood within ‘Sunglasses’ presents yet again a tortured and bruised vocal performance that is scary but so gorgeous. In one part of the narrative of the song, he tries to prove his own self worth to his partner:
Roisin O’Connor in The Independent slated Black Country, New Road’s decision to have lyrics where it seems that they are defending the controversial Kanye West. But in making such a bold criticism, she misses the point entirely. Wood within this track confesses that he is lacking an identity of his own and is lost. Moreover, Anthony Fantano (theneedledrop on YouTube) argued that the facade he creates for himself by wearing sunglasses as a coping mechanism fails, and drives him further from his true self. Identity and purpose are key themes on this album and I think they are conveyed brilliantly by this debut.
Sunglasses’ is just shy of 10 minutes long, which may seem off-putting, but it is a piece that has so much to offer to its listeners, so it’s definitely worth the runtime.
Black Country, New Road’s debut album For The First Time is nothing short of sensational. In spite of all the different styles present within the project, I have to agree with Jazz Monroe when he states that “none of their experiments feel gimmicky”. And despite these six songs being challenging in length and at times uncomfortable to listen to, they have undoubtedly changed the game. Black Country, New Road were not messing around when making this record. They went into this with something to prove, and oh boy did they do that! I am so excited for the future of this band, who have given me hope that my generation can make art that is so god damn awesome.
You can now listen to For The First Time on all platforms.