Words by Matt Phelps.
A lot has changed in the world since British Sea Power released their last album ‘Machineries of Joy’ in 2013. The band have been far from reclusive, having released two film soundtracks plus the magnificent ‘Sea Of Brass’ project in that time, but it seems clear that they’ve been quietly digesting world events during the making of their latest effort. ‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party’ is their sixth studio album and the first they’ve released through their own Golden Chariot label thanks to a very successful crowdfunding campaign which saw fans bid on everything from a simple inclusion of their name in the sleevenotes to a BSP-themed tattoo granting the bearer to a lifetime of free gig attendance.
Having generally eschewed such traditional lyrical themes as break-ups, unhappy childhoods and the like, BSP have in the past referenced everything from moths to old novels to Antarctic ice shelves. The band have cited artists Kurt Schwitters and Ian Hamilton Finlay among their influences on this new record but current affairs were evidently weighing rather more heavily on their minds during the writing process, continuing a growing politicisation of the band’s output which can arguably be traced back to ‘Who’s In Control?’, the opener of their fourth album ‘Valhalla Dancehall’. The end result here is a perfect coming together of all that quirkiness and obscurity of old and a new BSP growing in maturity and the confidence to be more a band of the present, both politically and musically.
This confidence is clear from the start with a short piano intro segueing straight into rip roaring lead single ‘Bad Bohemian’. Right from the opening line ‘you said the world was losing all its lustre/you realised each day you’re growing old/and the future stretches out there between us/and we decide if we wanted to be cold’ it’s clear BSP is now firmly ingrained in the here and now, and yet, in typical contrary fashion, the title comes from Cecil Parrott’s 1978 biography of the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek. Musically speaking, it’s got classic Sea Power written all over it, but with an added warmth and depth which is consistent throughout the record. The production is superb and Phil Sumner and Abi Fry prove increasingly integral to the band’s sound with their sweeping synth, cornet and string lines often beefing up, and at times replacing altogether, the classic BSP guitar hooks. There’s still plenty of opportunities for Martin Noble to shine though such as the Robert Fripp-style feedback-heavy riffs on the Hamilton-led ‘What You’re Doing’ and a blistering half minute solo at the end of ‘Don’t Let The Sun Get In The Way’ which evokes Neil Young and Peter Buck in style and tone. This is an altogether more polished record from a band who sound more than happy to embrace their burgeoning musical sophistication. Perhaps only the closing minute or so of ‘Saint Jerome’ really reminds the listener that this is the same band that produced such frenetic outbursts as ‘Favours In The Beetroot Fields’ and ‘Scottish Wildlife Experience’ a decade and a half ago.
On ‘The Voice Of Ivy Lee’, Yan Wilkinson sings ‘kings of propaganda won’t you take another look at all the things you’ve done?’ – a clear reference to the current post-truth/fake news era, bolstered by the name-dropping in the title of one of the forefathers of modern PR. When he sings ‘can’t we stay?’ repeatedly on ‘Keep On Trying (Sechs Freunde)’ you really get a sense Yan is expressing the widespread frustration felt by many who are struggling to come to terms with Britain’s increasingly isolationistic stance. British Sea Power may be British by name but they’ve certainly made no secret of their European hearts, from their 2004 split single with the Czech band The Ecstasy of St Theresa through to more recent lyrics in songs like ‘Waving Flags’ (‘From across the Vistula, you’ve come so very far/Oh welcome in’), BSP have always sought to see people of all cultures coming together to celebrate their quirks and differences.
It’s not all pedal to the metal political rants, mind, as mid-album ballad ‘Electrical Kittens’ slows things down a bit and Yan softens the blows a little as he sings ‘we’ll all hold hands as the radio plays/say a little prayer for halcyon days’. Even here there is still an underlying anxiety at thecurrent international instability but it’s delivered in a rather calmer ‘what will be will be’ tone and after almost 20 minutes of non-stop pop hooks this has rather the same effect as a nice bath, a hug and a glass of wine after an exhilarating day.
The keystone of the record for me is ‘Praise For Whatever’, and not just because it features the album’s title in the lyrics. There is a brooding undertone to the whole six minutes with swirling keyboards and ghostly backing vocals setting the mood as Yan sings ‘it’s a comedy of errors between the nights and all the terrors/we’ve added all the numbers up and we’re ready to go/and in a world made of allegories tell me what are you supposed to be?’. Halfway through, a pulsing drum beat, distorted synths and a crunching bassline signal the transition into something altogether darker as the refrain of ‘here comes the prize, here comes the reward’ loops round and round over perhaps BSP’s most Joy Division-esque soundscape yet before the whole thing clatters to a halt and drifts seamlessly into the sublime ‘Want To Be Free’; possibly one of the youngest Wilkinson brother’s finest moments to date. All three of Hamilton’s songs here are particularly great actually, the hauntingly woozy ‘Alone Piano’ drawing the album gently to a close with assorted echoing keyboard sounds and whispered vocals.
For all the world-weary lyrical content there’s no escaping the fact ‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party’ is basically a great pop album, and the curiously wonderful thing that resonates throughout is a sense of unshakeable optimism; it’s in many ways their most Ballardian offering to date and yet simultaneously brimming with hope. The band themselves have described it as their most coherent record and the running theme seems to me to be ‘yes, things aren’t looking great and we’re scared and angry too but it will all be okay in the end’.
The arpeggiated guitar line that brought the ‘Machineries Of Joy’ album to a close always felt like an intentional ploy to keep the listener wanting more. Mellow but never languid, pop without being saccharine, majestic yet understated: ‘Let The Dancers Inherit The Party’ is the symphony we’ve been waiting four years for and it’s well worth the wait. A triumphant return.