As soon as music venues reopened their doors last summer, Black Country, New Road were pretty much the first band back out on tour, playing to audiences seated at tables in socially distanced bubbles. Sure, they had a critically acclaimed debut album to promote – For The First Time was released at the height of lockdown in February 2021 – but they seemed keen to quickly push beyond that. The setlist for that first show, at Bath Komedia on June 15, included only three songs from the album, and four they hadn’t recorded yet.
Being hailed as ‘the best new band in Britain’ may not carry the weight of expectation it once did but the pressure is still real. Black Country, New Road have chosen to meet it head-on – or perhaps, to ignore it completely. By late July, they were hunkered down in Chale Abbey Studios on the southernmost tip of the Isle Of Wight, recording those new songs for a follow-up scheduled for release just 364 days after their debut. Obviously that’s one way to avoid the typical pitfalls of second-album syndrome. But you suspect that for this London-based septet, most of whom were still at university when signed by Ninja Tune, it’s more about seizing the initiative, establishing their own terms of engagement before the buzz congeals into anything as fatally boring as a ‘career’.
Ants From Up There brooks no compromise. While musically brighter, more confident and coherent than For The First Time, the songs are also longer, weirder and more extreme. The web of “references, references, references” is exponentially thicker, with numerous lyrics that seem to quote from other songs – particularly other Black Country, New Road songs. The band feel like they’re in a hurry to construct their own world, before the tedium of routine sets in.
This time, Isaac Wood mostly sings rather than rants, which initially feels more welcoming, although his voice does retain the alarmist tremor of a man who’s just been shown pictures of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. Portents of apocalypse notwithstanding, the band strive to maintain a sense of naïvety and playfulness. “Chaos Space Marine” begins with Georgia Ellery (violin), May Kershaw (piano) and Lewis Evans (sax) each introducing themselves with a brief anti-solo, in the manner of Roxy Music opener “Re-Make/Re-Model”. It’s arguably a little too cute, but actually one of the album’s defining features is how well those three instruments blend together, often creating a lush Nyman-esque bed onto which more conventional rock dynamics are overlaid – or not, as in the case of “Mark’s Theme”, a gorgeous interlude dedicated to Evans’ uncle, a big supporter of the band who died from Covid last year.
What’s impressive is how they are able to dramatically shift the mood, sometimes within the space of a few bars, without it ever feeling forced or insincere. “Chaos Space Marine” is a fun, picaresque romp to kick off proceedings – verses by The Divine Comedy, chorus by Arcade Fire – but it also features an inescapably bittersweet half-speed coda, with Wood dropping breadcrumb trails of several of Ants From Up There’s recurring lyrical obsessions (Concorde, Billie Eilish) as if they’re clues in a murder mystery. It’s a slightly unnerving tactic that begins building tension for later songs such as the mysterious and terrifying “Snow Globes”.
Much has been made of Wood’s wry, reference-heavy lyrics, and that technique is still in evidence as he wanders through a mundane contemporary milieu of sketchy wifi connections, soup-makers and scented candles. But what becomes clear is that he’s not just doing this as a comment on the banality of life in the 2020s; it also creates a heartbreaking hyper-specificity to his vignettes of fleeting encounters, blown up to become grand love stories in his head. “It’s just been a weekend/But in my mind we summer in France with our genius daughters now,” he sings on “Good Will Hunting”, the crushing pathos of Smiths-era Morrissey updated for the Sally Rooney generation. As the band ratchet up the melodrama, he makes “moving to Berlin for a little while” sound like one of the saddest lines ever sung.
There is a similar air of one-sidedness to the relationship outlined in “Bread Song”, something a bit chilling and Black Mirror about the way Wood sings, “I tried my best to hold you/Through the headset that you wear”. As the song slips between tense post-rock and unmoored Broadway balladry, he’s literally left feeding on crumbs; his abiding memory of the affair is being kicked out of bed for eating toast. Even on the romantic swoon of “Concorde”, he’s no closer to succour: “This staircase, it leads only to some old pictures of you/Through a thousand-mile-long tube”.
As with the first album’s declaration of love “in front of Black Midi”, Wood’s liaisons often seem to take place against a backdrop of scenes from the band’s own history. “Haldern”, for instance, is named after the German pop festival where the band came up with the kernel of the song during a passage of on-stage improvisation in 2020. This endless feedback loop between real life and lyrics does create a kind of philosophical knot: “We’ll promise these words won’t turn themselves into a song”, he reassures another reluctant lover, not very convincingly, on “The Place Where He Inserted The Blade”. Led initially by flute rather than sax, bassist Tyler Hyde has described it as the band’s gooiest moment, a rippling miasma of sound apparently inspired by Bob Dylan’s “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You”. Of course, the title of BCNR’s song lends it a more sinister edge – like Bob, it’s going to be hard for them to deliver a more straight-ahead love song without people reading all kinds of other things into it – but this really does feel like a comparatively tender and reciprocal moment: show me your deep emotional wounds and I’ll show you mine.
Finally it’s time for the colossal “Basketball Shoes”, Black Country, New Road’s very own “Marquee Moon”, pouring everything they’ve learned thus far into a gut-wrenching epic of Dostoevskian proportions. Lewis Evans’ opening saxophone line is a simple one, but played with such devastating poise that it prises your defences wide open. And that’s before Wood enters the scene like a feverish Leonard Cohen, fragments of childhood memories, past relationships and references from previous songs all mixed up now, as he struggles to put a brave face on what appears to be not just a broken heart but an engulfing existential crisis (“So if you see me looking strange with a fresh style/I’m still not feeling that great”).
As the song retracts, expands and then explodes in the manner of Godspeed You! Black Emperor at their most pulverising, it’s not immediately clear if we’re witnessing a moment of euphoria, catharsis or collapse. For Black Country, New Road to want to push this far, to delve this deep, on what is only their second shot at making an album together, is fairly astonishing. Ants From Up There is often beautiful, but it’s not an album you can listen to casually. Its relentless emotional pummelling is quite an experience, a rollercoaster ride for the soul that is likely to leave you feeling distinctly and permanently rearranged.