PHOTO | ‘Ants From Up There’ Album Cover
Black Country, New Road is an experimental, post-punk English rock band that recently comprised a 7-piece lineup. Four days before the release of their latest album, “Ants from Up There,” lead vocalist Isaac Wood left the band citing mental health struggles. The band released his statement on the departure on Instagram and other platforms, which essentially stated that due to his ‘sad and afraid feelings,’ he was having a hard time performing as a part of the band and would be leaving the group despite loving working with his fellow bandmates. His language in the statement is stiff and unnatural but somehow shines through as raw and pained.
This was my introduction to Black Country, New Road: I saw the outpouring of sorrow at Wood’s exit alongside the bated breath anticipation of the release from the likes of Pitchfork and Anthony Fantano, and all this for a post-punk, chamber pop that I had never even heard of before. I was intrigued and delighted by what I found in this record, but it made me free fall through all five stages of grief.
“Ants from Up There” was released on February 4, almost exactly a year following their debut, “For the First Time.” During an interview with New Music Express, a British media and culture website at the 2021 Mercury Prize awards, the band confirmed that they had already completed work on a follow-up, describing the album as “sad, epic, and possibly more universally likable” and that the songs are “more palatable” compared to their initial record. Sad, epic, and likable sum it up pretty well.
One of the major themes of this record is the metaphor of the Concorde jet and the accompanying Concorde fallacy (aka sunk cost fallacy), of which the third track shares its name. The Concorde is a British-French supersonic passenger airliner operated from 1976 to 2003. Those governments continued to sink money into far after it was time to let the project go. Some issues associated with the plane included that it was extremely costly to fuel and that there was a horrific incident in 2000 wherein some debris blew a tire and punctured one of the fuel tanks. The fire and engine failure caused Concorde to crash into a nearby hotel. One hundred thirteen people died.
The album laments a love that Wood continues to sink his affections into far after it is time to let it go: on the track “Concorde,” Wood sings, “… don’t tell me you’re hungry/ Cause darling, I’m starving myself/ …/ I was made to love you/Can’t you tell?” This kind of intellectualized agony feels distinctly English to my American ears; Wood gives us this metaphor-heavy breakup album and then subsequently breaks up with his band. Is it BCNR that he was made to love? The music? Was it always going to turn out this way, with Wood pouring his love and talent into this Concorde, this band, that he was always meant to leave?
“Bread Song” is played almost like two different songs entirely, with one track flowing full of grand orchestral swells that seem to come seamlessly and harmonically. Another track is more structurally supportive of Wood’s vocal performance. The lyrical matter is of the ‘relationship’ we’re getting a glimpse into on this record, gleaning details into the metaphor of the song’s name. Is that a betrayal if you allow someone into your bed and then find out that they’ve eaten a piece of toast and left the crumbs to sit in your sheets? Or is that the natural consequence of giving them access to your sanctuary? Is it something that you must expect- these minor nuisances that appear when you let someone sit in your private, intimate spaces? It reads like the bed is a metaphor for Wood’s mind- his personal space that he has allowed someone to infiltrate and live in long enough to leave traces of them lying strewn about. It ends with the line, “Oh, darling I/ I never felt the crumbs until you said/’This place is not for any man/ Nor particles of bread.'” His lover tells him that his bed, his innermost space, isn’t a good enough place for a person, let alone crumbs. What could be more devastating to hear?
This ‘relationship’ gets more exposition on the tracks “Good Will Hunting,” “Haldern,” and “The Place Where He Inserted the Blade.”
“Haldern” is named for the Haldern Pop Festival in Germany and attempts to capture the vibe and energy of the original, improvised creation of the song. “Every now and then in the middle of a gig, we’ll do some improvisation because it can be really fun,” said Wood via Ninja Tune. “When we did it this time, we wrote a whole song, which is the first time we’ve ever done that.” Musically, it is one of the most harrowing and beautiful tracks on a record that is a masterclass on capturing those two specific feelings. It feels like a conversation between every instrument involved, and Wood’s vocals act as an instrument all its own.
Wood’s vocal performance throughout “Ants from Up There” is always on point. For every pleasant valley, he whispers his lyrics to sound like a lullaby; for every dramatic peak of instrumentation, he howls his lines like he’s just come up with the words on the spot. His shaky, low tone is drastic and demanding on every song, but somehow, he never has to fight for attention to distinguish himself from the instrumentals. BCNR has very artfully and skillfully found a way to let both beautiful, bold instrumentation and beautiful, bold vocals coexist without detracting from each other. It’s genius and so depressing. It’s got me in denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. I don’t even want to talk about acceptance.
“Snow Globes” features a delicate and straightforward intro that goes on for 3 minutes or so, then leaps into lyrics sung from the perspective of Catherine of Aragon about her husband King Henry VIII regarding his changes of religion and his infidelity and a brutal plea to God. The last two tracks, “Snow Globes” and “Basketball Shoes,” show a shift downward into closure. As the lyrics become more pained and constricted, the music swells to drown out Wood’s voice with a wave of beating drums and crashing cymbals.
“Basketball Shoes” is a track that predates BCNR’s debut album and has gone through multiple lyrical versions; initially, the song was about Charli CXX, but in this update, we only get a mention of a ‘Charlie.’ This outro touches on all the themes that the album has presented us and does so in three parts throughout the exhaustive 12:37 minutes it plays. I think an essential part of the song is the ending lyric, “All I’ve been forms the drone, we sing the rest/ Oh, your generous loan to me, your crippling interest.” This feels like Wood’s parting words to his listeners, an explanation of his departure. He thanks you for your ‘generous loan,’ or the time you’ve taken to listen to the band and the attention you’ve given him, but also expresses that the very thing he is thankful for he also considers a burden to bear- ‘your crippling interest,’ or your high expectations that he doesn’t think that he can live up to.
This record is sad, epic, and likable, to put it simply. Wood’s performance and lyricism feel like a grand goodbye or a Viking funeral sendoff into the dark, deep night. I couldn’t help but pause listening to this record and think to myself, good grief, I hope this guy is okay. It’s a shame to think that Wood’s mindset and mental strain had to be the context and environment to create such an impactful project. Still, then again, when lightning strikes in art like this, it’s usually due to unfortunate circumstances. I think that this record will be hailed as a classic to the genre, and it will no doubt become an urban legend in the music scene. BCNR isn’t going anywhere; the now six-piece will divide vocal duties and lyrics amongst themselves and continue to create beautiful music. I am excited to see what direction they move, and I remain hopeful that Isaac Wood will find his way back to performing whenever the time is right for him. “Ants from Up There” is going to be hard to beat for album of the year, but then again, it’s only February. 9/10.