“Hype kills art.”
It’s a statement that has become increasingly apparent in the age of online entertainment discourse. In the music world, even more so. An artist receives a slew of praise from press or fans, whether from a viral single or a live performance. The artist is then tasked with a difficult feat: create a debut album that not only lives up to the hype, but simultaneously provides listeners with enough material to keep them satisfied, while introducing themselves to the music scene at large.
Black Country, New Road are a band that were in this similar position. Not many bands, off the back of just two singles, would be given the title of “Best band in the world” from The Quietus. Yet, they did. Tracks like “Sunglasses” and “Athens, France” were signal posts for a band that was conjuring up something big in the UK experimental jazz and post-punk scene. With bandleader Isaac Wood’s trademark vocal quiver and mercurial lyrics, there were elements of their sound that everyone could attach to.
For the first time is a debut that most bands dream of creating and yet, despite the mountain of hype, Black Country, New Road deliver on all fronts. The pulse behind the band’s thrilling debut is undoubtedly Isaac Wood. His voice trembles and shudders as he lyrically embarks sets his sights on how we deal with grief, regret, shame, and the reflection that comes afterwards.
Wood’s narration throughout these tracks covers a range of cultural references and cleverly weaves them into BC, NR’s overarching message. On “Sunglasses”, Wood details someone who is seemingly living a very mundane, privileged experience, a boyfriend who is dating within a wealthy family. A life that, at first, sounds appealing, but cracks start to show after a while. His near spoken-word delivery is very Slint-esque, but never ends up becoming a detriment. The band even jokes about this on “Science Fair.”
“Frail hands” are working on juicing watermelon in a Nutribullet, all the while the narrator is slowly turning into the archetypal wealthy, highbrow snob. As the track unfurls, the ignorance of the man’s lifestyle starts to turn into desperation. His lack of knowledge becomes more than a problem, it’s becoming a hindrance. The “sunglasses” in this case refer into a defense mechanism against the future and all it brings.
I am invincible in these sunglasses Cars are going “beep, beep, beep”Black Country, New Road “Sunglasses”
And there are so many roadmen on this street
And they cannot tell that I am scared
Most of For the first time involves plenty of stories like this. The thesis of the record seems to be fear of the future and an unwillingness to progress. It begs the question, “What is the Black Country?” Geographically, the “Black Country” refers to the English West Midlands, which is an area that is known for it’s industrial work and ironworking refinement.
Diving in metaphorically, the term can mean so many various things. I’ve taken it to refer to the general malaise of a post-Brexit UK and the cloud of depression that hangs in the air. It’s not hard to imagine the everyman of now fearing the uncertainty of the future. So much has been promised. The past is so much more comforting because it’s familiar; familiar places, familiar people, etc. The final moments on the record cement this point thoroughly.
“What we built must fall to the rising flamеs”Black Country, New Road “Opus”
For the first time is bolstered by Isaac Wood, but the rest of Black Country, New Road back him up beautifully. The bellowing crescendo on the aforementioned “Science Fair” is one of 2021’s best moments. “It’s Black Country out there,” Wood’s proclaims. Behind him, the sax pierces the mix like many of the best free-jazz moments of the late-50’s, early 60’s jazz scene. It’s accompanied by wailing string section, and a mountain of increasing dread.
“Sunglasses” has a conclusion that rivals the very best of late-era SWANS, specifically To Be Kind and The Seer. To round off the record, BC, NR offer something new, a wonderous fusion of Jewish klezmer, post-punk, and jazz stylings. It speaks to the band’s willingness to not only play with the genre label, but completely shatter it in the process. The melodies repeat over and over until you’ve gotten up and starting dancing in your PJ’s. It’s a triumphant moment, even if it strikes listeners as odd at first.
“Track X” breaks up the intensity with a softer entry into the tracklist. With a title that ominous, you would expect this moment to be more distant. This couldn’t be further from the truth. “Track X” is a moment that feels important especially within the context of the rest of the album. It’s the comedown after the explosiveness of the previous moments.
Not only that, but it shows the precariousness of our narrator at its fullest. Lamenting the broken relationship by saying to this person, “It could have been you.” It’s a solemn moment that features a chorus that brilliantly ends abruptly, as if to infer that their situation will be unresolved.
For the first time is a freewheeling, experimental opus that sees Black Country, New Road firmly planting their flag down in the music scene. For a band that is so willing to reference Kanye West and black midi on the same record, they invoke something deeply personal. The feeling that we’re all living in a black country, full of uncertainty and fear. Yet, we have to forge a new path forward and weigh our options. Even if those options are not as pretty as we want them to be. Resolution doesn’t come easy.