Credit Paul Hudson CC BY 2.0 _https___creativecommons.org_licenses_by_2.0_, via Wikimedia Commons

The edges are blurry now: Reviewing Black Country, New Road’s live album

By Otto Hampden-Woodfall

An exploration of the small-scale issues with BCNR’s Live at Bush Hall.

“Look at what we did together, BCNR, friends forever.” Black Country New Road’s Live at Bush Hall has all the hallmarks of a final goodbye. The performance is framed like a prom, with its protagonists dressed in decaying school-dance garb, as if stumbling home drunk on punch (I think that’s what Americans drink at prom). Given how movie endings, and in particular prom-based movie endings tend to go, the genius that made everything work is getting a little fuzzy. 

Crucially, one of our players is missing. Isaac Wood left the band in 2022 due to mental health issues, creating a gap in the band’s identity; they are, and always have been, consciously egalitarian in their team structure, but Wood’s warbly baritone and remarkable lyrical precision was for better or worse a key element of their first impression, and the strongest part of their deeper appeal. He had an ability to realise an essential vividness from what individual moments really consist of, the details turned on their heads and put in the wrong place, everything profound minimised and pop culture, brand names, small touches and the mundane in hyper-focus. Without him, the band simply cannot find this kind of lens. Their instrumental brilliance is not dulled; if anything, the compositions are sharper: six members now two years into refining this theatrical brand of post-Brexit rock. But their ideas are blurry at the edges. 

In particular, a trilogy of songs led by bassist Tyler Hyde reveals this haziness. Now, truth be told, I had already heard most of this new material prior to the release of Live at Bush Hall, having seen a rougher version of this set in person at Green Man Festival in 2022. There, with the music blasted into your ears and the departure of Isaac still so raw, the lyrics weren’t important. The band looked shocked to be playing music at all, and the songs as a whole were strong enough to leave a spellbound audience in awe. In particular, the one-two closing punch of Turbines/Pigs and Dancers stand out in my mind as career highlights for BCNR, and their brilliance is preserved in the new clarity of this most recent recording. The bombastic opener Up Song stands up as well; in general, Live at Bush Hall’s best moments find a kind of naive, simplistic awe, the awe in continuing to play music with your friends even with a piece missing, and Up Song’s “BCNR, friends forever” refrain is a perfect example. But the run of songs from I Won’t Always Love You through to Laughing Song feels like BCNR drained of their essential character. 

These are plain, simple break-up songs; the instrumentals may fool you, as they fooled me, into inferring more meaning than may be there, but the best songs are a synthesis of both elements working evenly in tandem. At the midpoint of Live at Bush Hall, I began to realise that the toll Isaac’s departure had taken on the band was that they had now become slightly ordinary. This is not bad music, but it’s less good than it used to be. And somehow, that smarts a little more. Because by synthesising Wood’s fantastic eye for detail, his singular lyrical style, with the instrumental palette still found here, BCNR had constructed a truly world-conquering brilliance; and yet here I was, listening to a live recording of yet-to-be-released songs, watching it slip from their grasp.

I don’t want to be harsh on what is, in the grand scheme of things, quite a small drop in quality. As a band, they are allowed to evolve, find new topics that catch their eye, simplify and complexify, and ultimately do what they like. My job as a reviewer is to observe, not to recommend. But as a listener, I can’t help but miss the old BCNR, not from nostalgia or a reactionary impulse, but a recognition that they had created a potentially limitless style, a style that now sadly has gone. It’s no one’s fault, per se; Isaac most likely isn’t coming back and though I imagine Tyler will improve her lyrics, they will never be the same as Isaac’s. It’s just a little sad.


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