British Sea Power Do You Like Rock Music?

[Rough Trade; 2008]

Styles: indie rock, post-punk, epic anthems to nothing in particular
Others: Arcade Fire, Bloc Party, U2

Rarely is a title so apt.

British Sea Power’s third album tells (and warns) you exactly what you’re getting into the moment you look at it. The band has moved past the spiky, historical-gimmicky feedback of their debut and risen above the mealy Brit-pop of the lumpy, sophomore slump-y Open Season to make a Rock Album in the most unfashionable sense of the word, like those sincerity-is-the-new-black Great White Northerners who need not be named again. And no, you’re not reading wrong: that’s U2 tacked onto the “others” in all their Joshua Treed-out grandiosity and indistinct sentiment.

Do You Like Rock Music? gives lie to anyone who claims to despise Bono and co. but loves The Bends. Here are the same huge, heartache guitars and stadium-status effects, still more wave-of-mutilation than wall-of-sound, but unmistakably meant for the festival stage at Reading or Glastonbury, not the darkened punk club. It’s stuff that the kids go nuts for these days, but they’re rarely willing to admit where it comes from. So take heed: if you’re OK with that, you will be A-OK with this album, because it delivers in spades. Approached on its own terms, the album is stellar, as long as you’ve still got that loving feeling for Big Rock moves.

The high-pitched, addictive riffs spring fresh and fully formed from the Edge’s playbook, compressed, delayed, and drenched in reverb to bullet the blue sky pop hooks straight into hearts and minds. More interestingly, the murky, atmospheric production that kept their debut so sinister has likewise detoured into Eno territory here, making the action in the backfield as interesting as the rock-solid melodies up front. And there are plenty of the latter; even if you don’t cotton to the arena vibe, these tunes are the most consistently great the band has pulled off in a row yet. “Lights Out For Darker Skies” charges out of the gate like Ted Leo on a Tyranny of Distance trip, and “No Need to Cry” perches gorgeous on the oft-trodden razor’s edge between romance and sap. But the backing arrangements seamlessly blend timbres together into fascinating tones that defy attempts to pluck out individual instruments, merging voice, guitar, and synthesizer so deftly that trainspotting for each individually misses the point. Vocals in particular play a big part here, or, more rightly, the semblance of vocals. The band exploits the electric guitar’s natural similarity and affinity with the wordless human voice to great effect, and matches it at the other end of the spectrum with high-in-the-mix whispers that could just as well be wispy synth patches. The effect is to summon the ghost in the machine that stops you from caring which is the more present.

The lyrics are the chink in the armor here, not nearly as interesting in their vague, formless intrigue as the production, and one chunky stumbling block in the path of this album reaching not just Big, but Great status. While British Sea Power have never been particularly profound in their prosody, penning odes to Dostoevsky and icebergs that run on high-octane quirk, at least the songs used to have subjects. They haven’t descended to Gallagher-bros. depths here, but when the most coherent mission statement to be found is in “Atom”'s opening lines, “I’ll be the first to admit this is a bright but haunted age,” you know you’re not getting anything you haven’t already heard by the wane of the Bush/Blair era. On lead single “Waving Flags,” the band casts a wide net to welcome “astronomical fans of alcohol” and those “of legal drinking age/ on minimum wage”, and then never says whose flags exactly all us alkies are supposed to be waving. Our own? Could it be a cry against nationalism? Against petty factionalism in all forms? Or could it mean anything you want, like all the hits by that certain blue-sunglassed old guy with a messianic complex?

Anyway, that’s not really the point; BSP aren't going for a concept album here (or concepts at all, really), but you’d be forgiven for expecting one given how beautifully the collection of songs coheres into a singular piece of work and retains momentum through its movements. Few albums are made to flow so well, and whether or not that’s the kind of listening experience you can still get into in this blog-exclusive, back-to-the-single age, your answer to the titular question will tell you more than this reviewer can.

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