In 1984, London’s Bronski Beat rejected the industry’s ideas about which in-your-face marketing tactics could be applied to a trio of working-class gay men. Instead, they crafted “Smalltown Boy,” a kitchen-sink drama about a bullied outsider who flees home but never gives up his dignity. Kele Okereke’s serene cover of the synth-pop classic suits him impeccably. Tucked away toward the end of the longtime Bloc Party frontman’s fifth solo album, The Waves, Pt. I, it certainly isn’t the first beatless reimagination of a dancefloor favorite, “Smalltown Boy” included. But from a Black, gay artist whose intersecting identities were once either high-mindedly downplayed or frustratingly over-emphasized (“From 2004 to 2006, in every interview I was asked what it felt like to be a black musician making indie music,” he has said), this tender rendition feels personal. It’s also exquisite and unexpectedly raw, all aching falsetto and reverberating guitar textures.
Perhaps the pandemic-era timing was just right. Although Kele’s willingness to go for grand gestures has always endeared him, over the years that ambitious approach has seemed to yield diminishing returns. The Waves, Pt. I stands apart, the product of lockdown recording and late-night walks through London as the stay-at-home father of two passed time posting guitar covers on Instagram. Half lyric-based and half instrumental, built out of only guitar, piano, and voice, it’s as low-key and eccentric as Kele has ever sounded.
On its own introspective terms, The Waves, Pt. I is audacious, even poetic—a quiet room to the blaring clubs of Kele’s early electro-pop solo albums. Informed by Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and Glenn Branca, the instrumentals are thoughtful showcases for the fluid guitar playing Kele more typically reserves for Bloc Party albums. For the first time, that guitar is heavily treated through loops and his home collection of effects pedals, evidenced in the crystal lattices and churning undercurrents of opener “Message From the Spirit World.” Next to “Smalltown Boy,” the song-based originals are more like sketches, often blending spoken word with Kele’s plaintive moan to create a sense of solitary ambience. As the world struggles to move past the last year and a half, Kele’s reflections on relationship drama, headline fatigue, and sleeping aids feel refreshingly true-to-life.
The racial justice themes of 2019’s cluttered 2042 are more restrained here, but Kele’s rage and sadness are all the more eloquent without overt sloganeering, and even without words. “The Patriots,” a brief but potent instrumental, builds layers of guitars into gnashing convulsions that unmistakably communicate this second-generation immigrant’s dread about right-wing nationalism on the march. More often, though, the instrumental-leaning tracks offer solace from the turbulent world outside Kele’s home and headphones. “The Heart of the Wave,” his starting point for making the record, is a meditative tangle that recalls Vini Reilly’s loveliest work as the Durutti Column. “Intention” combines the sort of mindful field-recording exercise you might expect from Cassandra Jenkins and the dystopian new age calm of Oneohtrix Point Never.
Even the “proper” songs are idiosyncratic mood pieces. The half-spoken “They Didn’t See It Coming” is like a travelogue set in London during the turbulence that followed the murder of George Floyd; Kele observes broken storefronts and wild foxes as cooly as Jonathan Richman might talk about Kenmore Square. “Nineveh,” a piano-based breakup anthem that is among the album’s highlights (“You said, ‘Boys like me don’t just grow on trees’/But lately I’ve been thinking all about the evergreens,” Kele croons sweetly), gives about half its runtime to expressive guitar pyrotechnics reminiscent of a ’70s Brian Eno production. A bouncy springtime guitar on “How to Beat a Lie Detector” belies a crushing tale of grown-up romantic problems: “Just promise not to ask, it’s best that you don’t know,” he implores.
The Waves, Pt. 1’s warts-and-all looseness isn’t without the requisite warts. There are lyrical clunkers—“A deal is a deal/To take it back is to steal,” Kele intones on another melancholy reverie, “From a Place of Love”—and the instrumentals can seem slight (are the spiky arpeggios of “Dragoness” a little too ephemeral?). When Kele’s familiar voice leaps all over the limits of its range, songs like “The One Who Held You Up” take on a stagey quality. But overall, The Waves, Pt. 1 is a mid-career detour worth indulging. The left-of-center UK rock veteran sounds better here than he has at least since the best songs on 2017’s folksy Fatherland, his previous no-frills record. But this time Kele also sounds free. As he calls out at the end of the airy, vulnerable bonus track, “Cradle You,” “It’s time to rise.”
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