Albums of the Year: Ants From Up There – Black Country, New Road

Ants From Up There is an exhaustive, nostalgic testimony to the toll of love and dissolution

To outside observers, Black Country New Road’s early trajectory might have seemed like an elaborate inside joke. The video to breakout single “Sunglasses” was comprised entirely of stills from go-pro footage found online, record deals from typical rock labels were rejected in favour of dance music imprint Ninja Tune, and the cover art to their debut For the First Time was a photo from the copyright-free stock image website Unsplash (replete with watermark and all). Preempting critics by crowning themselves “the world’s second best Slint tribute act” was a title so densely packed with self-consciousness, it threatened a post-ironic singularity. 

Yet even as the band’s self-effacing social media presence eschewed the humourless press junket attached to indie rock bands of decades past, it became undeniable just how proficient BCNR really were. Their inclusion of klezmer music with a violin and saxophone separated them from the meat-and-two-veg guitar and drums of the post-post-post-punk circuit. Instrumental detours that pushed ten minutes felt necessary rather than indulgent. Despite the heavy doses of irony the band doused themselves in, the fanfare surrounding them had become inescapable.

So when their second album Ants From Up There was announced, the jettisoning of this tightly-choreographed identity caused concern. Lead single “Chaos Space Marine” was named after a tabletop wargaming faction, and was coupled with artwork whose unappealing quality could no longer be pinned on being sourced from Unsplash. The song itself shedded the experimental edge of their previous sound in favour of group vocal “yeahs” and rousing strings reminiscent of Funeral-era Arcade Fire. Wasn’t this path well-trodden already? And more worryingly, hadn’t we seen where it led to? The commitment to kitsch that had once been endearing, suddenly felt in danger of growing stale.

These fears were unfounded. Ants From Up There is unequivocally an album about love – a surprising revelation given frontman Isaac Wood’s usual sardonicism. Almost entirely absent on For the First Time, love’s only mention came via a foolhardy declaration during a black midi concert. The moment is trivialised, ridiculed even. Love, in Wood’s eyes, is something to be held at arm’s length and regarded with suspicion.

Not so here. Love is presented not in the abstract, but in its singular form – love bottled and treasured through countless gestures passed over almost as quickly as they are offered up. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching lyric on the entire record is at the same time devastatingly domestic: “Everytime I make lunch/For anyone else in my head/I end up dreaming of you”.

Much of the reason this album has provoked such a visceral reaction (on both sides of the fence) lies in its uncompromising depiction of adolescent romance. Between the revealing comparisons to Billie Eilish and the reverent motif of a concorde, Wood’s beloved is simultaneously the girl next door and a god on earth; the kind of idolisation we might be urged to baulk at, had we not ourselves been guilty of committing. Wood’s lyrics uniquely capture the drudgery presented by post-Brexit Britain (at one point Berlin is cast as the site of metropolitan escape), and how in the face of economic uncertainty, a natural defence mechanism is to retreat into the security of a relationship. And of course, how impotent it feels to discover that isn’t secure either.

Just days before the album’s release, Wood shared a statement that he would be leaving the band “in spite of six of the greatest people I know”, citing struggles with his deteriorating mental health. Apart from anything else, Ants From Up There is an exhaustive testimony to the kind of toll documenting his breakup may well have had. As monumental closer “Basketball Shoes” draws the record to an end, it seems inevitable that Wood should be the only figure left lying in his bed.

Keeping the door open for Wood to return, the band confirmed their intentions to continue, though they would no longer be performing any material from their first, nor their imminently arriving second album. The decision had the unintended consequence of consigning Ants From Up There to the past before it ever existed in the present, instantly rendering it a relic to an era already lost. The only available sentiment was nostalgia, each song trapped in amber upon immediate contact with the air. The threat of dissolution right at their ascendency meanwhile, recalled spectres of other cult-favourites that never outlived their first two records: Joy Division, Neutral Milk Hotel – Slint

The decision ultimately seems the right one; it would’ve rung hollow to have heard anyone else sing words so inexorably tied to Wood’s lovelorn sincerity. Nor did it appear they needed to – after cancelling their US and April tours, the remaining six members had effortlessly written a dozen new songs that became their setlist for the rest of the year. 

Last month I was lucky enough to see them at Kensington’s Bush Hall in the first of a trio of filmed performances for an as-yet-unknown project. On its eve, a cryptic email invited ticket holders to the debut production of When the Whistle Thins, the latest work from fictional “master playwright” Hubert Dalcrose that concerns a group of farmers gathering for a harvest. Attendees were reassured they would not be required to arrive in costume, though the band themselves were donned in appropriately rustic attire (the dungarees unlikely raised eyebrows among the art school kids in attendance). 

The point of the theatrics remained inscrutable, if a playful reminder of the band’s signature cheek, while the songs themselves easily matched the feverish ecstasy of their previous work. As my eyes passed over the deliberately crude backdrop of rolling hills however, I caught myself yearning for a sincere iteration of a band otherwise known for their wry sense of humour. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

Listen to The Colour of Spring Podcast for more of our albums of the year here

By Sidney Franklyn@SidneyFranklyn

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