Label: Ninja Tune
Release Date: 5th February 2021
"It could well be the album of the year. But For the first time falls short of the truly revolutionary statement it could have been."
Ever since the release of ‘Athens France’ and ‘Sunglasses’ in 2019, Black Country, New Road have been shovelling coal into the engine of an unstoppable hype train. Each setback, pandemic-related or otherwise, seemed only to tear off another brake pad. Now we have pulled into the station and the band finally have an album to their name. Short but sweet, For the first time contextualises their unique blend of punk, post-rock, folk, atonal noise, poetry and pop-culture references.
It could well be the album of the year. But it falls short of the truly revolutionary statement it could have been.
Actually, For the first time is anything but. Only two songs from its tracklist have never been heard before. A lack of material has until this point been an indicator of more to come, whereas now the impact of the album’s four singles is lessened in their new context. In years ahead, the run-up to release day will likely be forgotten, but right now it’s hard to ignore.
The album’s genuinely new moments are its best. ‘Instrumental’ sets the bar high, its challenge answered by deserving finale ‘Opus’. Playful klezmer-influenced sax and string melodies, darting between powerful guitars and drums, breathe new life into BCNR’s sound.
Unlike a certain other track (don’t worry, we’ll get there), ‘Athens France’ benefits from its re-recording. Andy Savours’ production brings out the softer delicacies of added material while beefing up the existing guitar riff. The new lyrics were a shock but seem more considered once you get used to them. Frontman Isaac Wood reminisces on “the words I'll one day wish that I had never said”, perhaps referring to the original lyric, “she tries to fuck me, I pretend that I’m asleep instead.”
You could cut the tension in ‘Science Fair’ with a knife; Wood’s wit is sharp enough to do just that. “Still living with my mother, as I move from one micro-influencer to another” is just such a great line. Sitting more comfortably at For the first time’s midpoint than as its lead single, it’s refreshing to hear guitar music grounded as much in its present as its past. Frequent name drops are the band’s way of acknowledging their place in musical history, but neither do they pretend it’s still the ‘90s.
In an interview with Consequence of Sound, saxophonist Lewis Evans said For the first time was to sound “exactly how we love to sound live.” Curious, then, they didn’t stick with Dan Carey’s original. The live-take is Speedy Wunderground’s USP.
Black Country, New Road have been compared to Slint, The Fall, Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the past (often by themselves) but trying to soft-pedal them is a disservice. It’s hard to describe how I felt after hearing ‘Sunglasses’ for the first time. It was totally unique, a youthful provocation of class conflict spun with the articulacy and nuance of musicians twice their age.
Its sister version is neutered by comparison. Gone are the monotonal snarls, Wood’s now semi-sung vocal is timid and fragile. Out of step with the rhythm surrounding him, his punk poetry is confused by missing phrases, words and swears. Childish as it feels to chastise a band for omitting swear words, these decisions sap much of the charm from Wood’s storytelling. It’s not clear who they are trying to appeal to, especially when they undermine this decision with the lyric “After I sacrificed a girl / In your name, in the same room where we fucked as kids” on following number ‘Track X’, a song which far better captures this more melodic, if serotonin-deficient, approach.
It’s futile to speculate if these were label decisions, a sincere change of direction, or if Wood and the band simply no longer wish to be associated with verses on depressing sexual encounters. Some changes work and some don’t. But ultimately the new ‘Sunglasses’ serves as a warning to future bands: don’t obsess over your old material, it’s probably fine.
Fortunately, the train won’t terminate here. Rumours are already circulating about album two being dropped very soon. Apocalypse permitting, For the first time won’t be for the last time. Let’s hope they set their sights higher than merely one of Britain’s best new bands.
Words by Charlie Ridler.
10th February 2021.