Album Review: Black Country, New Road – ‘For the first time’

Teetering on the border between profundity and absurdity, Black Country, New Road’s For the first time is a sprawling feat of a debut. Each tormented multi-part single offers a new twisted glimpse into the septet’s world, and The Mic’s Louis Griffin is keen to take the plunge.

Debut albums are a daunting proposition. As the saying goes, it takes your whole life to make one. They are a band’s opportunity to say to the world “this is what we are”, their first chance to make a full creative statement. But it is only very rarely that an artist uses their debut album to experiment with the entire album format – and that is precisely what Black Country, New Road have done.

The band see recording as a simple documentation of their sound at a point in time; nothing more, nothing less. When they sat down with My Bloody Valentine’s Andy Savours at the start of 2020 to record For the first time, they were not setting out to make a grand statement, so much as a line in the sand. The recording itself is not considered to be the finished article – these songs will continue to mutate and grow far into the future.

‘From the beginning, there is a wry smile woven into this album.’

The album feels bare of production. Save for the odd burst of squawking fuzz or sawtooth synth, these tracks sound remarkably live. But then again, when the musical ideas on show are as accomplished as they are here, who needs production? The band are by turns muscular and gentle, frenetic and mournful, and always, always different. Every creative decision feels brilliantly assured, and totally unconcerned with convention. Time and time again I felt my jaw drop as the album took another completely unexpected sonic detour.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the conservatively titled opener, Instrumental. From the beginning, there is a wry smile woven into this album – the very first beat designed to immediately put the listener on the back foot. The band then launch into an insistent motif that feels almost comical at first; it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re essentially showing off. But as the track progresses, the hypnotic repetitions build and build until almost unrecognisable. This is perhaps the neatest explanation of Black Country, New Road’s power: they take simple ideas, and see how far they can be taken. When executed as effortlessly as they are here, it is a uniquely formidable tactic.

The simplicity at the core of For the first time shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness, though – these tracks are deeply considered and referential. The album feels like one long call and response, the band set up concepts, only to break them down and rebuild them over again. The hypnotic riff of Sunglasses surfaces again on Track X, the rhythms of Instrumental borrow from Science Fair. To quote the latter: “references, references, references.” The decision to re-record the early singles seems obvious in light of this knotty canon – the angsty, claustrophobic mixes of the originals would have jarred completely with the album’s puritanical approach to production.

Indeed, the previously released singles – Athen’s, France, and Sunglasses – are the most prominent examples of Isaac Wood’s self-mythologising lyrics. What he’s chosen to keep, and what’s been changed for the album sessions, are all insights into the core of the record. Athen’s, France, archly enough, is now about writing Athen’s, France, with Wood confronting “the words I’ll one day wish I’d never said”. Meanwhile, Sunglasses finds him awkwardly recoiling from the track’s previous incarnation, stressing odd phrases and missing others out entirely. These are details that only those fully invested in the tracks’ previous incarnations would notice, but this is a band that expects utmost attention from their listener.

‘The array of ideas presented is dizzying, but crucially the emotional core of the album is just as hard to pin down.’

For the first time, then, is as much a violent rejection of Black Country, New Road’s early success as it is a look towards their future. But what a future it is. It’s a strange privilege to witness a band at this early, fluid stage of their output. Naive is the wrong word for it, but there’s a kind of self-aware innocence to these songs. This is perhaps most obvious on Track X, a heart-rendingly honest account of teen love that nevertheless says very little. After the sonic onslaught of the previous four songs, the band make the most unexpected move possible – an intimate, vulnerable, quiet ballad. Wood’s lyrics are just as referential here, but it feels like we’re seeing only part of the picture – all emotion is implied, down to the somehow heartbreaking non-chorus of “and I guess, in some way.”

The most truly powerful moments on the album, however, are when the band let rip. A prime example is Science Fair, a moment that feels like the centrepiece of the album. The brooding, hypnotic core of the song builds and builds until finally untenable; a lone saxophone line swoops across the landscape before the track collapses in on itself. The band use dynamics to great effect, resulting in an endless push and pull between the seven voices on show. Closer Opus is, fittingly, the logical conclusion of all of the tools in their arsenal. Starting as a mournful dirge, with violin and saxophone just gently massaging the guitar line, the track swells and retreats and swells again, never stationary. Parts are mournful, parts ecstatic, all fully intentional. With every member operating at maximum capacity, it’s utterly mesmerising.

For the first time is an elusive album. The array of ideas presented is dizzying, but crucially the emotional core of the album is just as hard to pin down. Over just a single track the band take us from elation to horror, and back again. It’s not just that they’re functioning on a level well above their contemporaries, they’re fully aware that they are, too. For the first time is a triumph.

Written by: Louis Griffin

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Black Country, New Road via Facebook. Article image by Max Granger.