Updated: Feb 11
Favorite Track: "Science Fair" Least Favorite Track: "Track X"
Imagine you are a 20-something, an aspiring musician, a nervous wreck who is timidly and cautiously trying to find your way in the world. You keep your Sertraline prescription filled, you fiddle with your guitar in your free time in a vague attempt to articulate the anxious happenings in your head, and you aspire to be something more; an unapologetic creative genius who is not afraid to share their musings with the world. Your anxiety keeps you up at night, wondering what more you could have said in various situations in the past to keep yourself from ending up in this rut, consumed and dictated by the hulking behemoth of nervous feelings that rules the kingdom of your head. This image, for many, is not difficult to conjure. It sounds like a depressing reality, but many people live it day in and out. For the lucky few who do not struggle with this, it can be somewhat hard to relate to those less fortunate than themselves; thus, something needs to bridge the gap in an understandable and accessible way for them to be able to help the people in need. For many, this bridge comes in the form of an in-depth conversation, a somber message, a crushing realization, but for me the most effective way has always been someone struggling with such feelings expressing themselves through art.
A work of art that manages to convey these feelings adequately is a feat that few come across in their artistic careers. For every album that conveys a deep emotional state in a meaningful and effective way, there are thousands of records that barely scratch the surface of the issues. The debut album from Black Country, New Road, For the first time, is that one-in-a-thousand record. Black Country, New Road are a seven-piece band from London, making impressions with the same listeners of bands like black midi and Fontaines D.C., but their avant-garde sensibilities and musical prowess are unmatched by anyone else in their field right now. Loosely applied, BC,NR is a post-punk band, utilizing freakishly twangy guitar tones, heart-pounding horn sections, and bone-chilling lead vocals from one Isaac Wood to convey a feeling of mania and anxiety that has seldom been seen in the past.
To connect the dots a bit, For the first time is most definitely an anxiety-ridden record. This was no secret from the lead singles in 2019, “Athen’s, France” and “Sunglasses”, two tracks that were bleak and direct depictions of a man terrified of sexual assertion, going as far as to sing from the perspective of a significant other on the latter wiith singer Isaac Wood breaking down with the lyrics “Fuck me like you mean it this time, Isaac!”. The song revels in fake bravado, the mask of a person who will break at a moment’s notice if challenged, but struts around proclaiming “I am the Fonz, I am the Jack of Hearts”. However, the beast of anxiety doesn’t only rear its head on these tracks in the lyricism; on the contrary, the instrumentals may be more terrifying. They sport an unsettling mix of rock and jazz instrumentation, consistently building up astonishing levels of tension until it all comes crashing down in a horror storm of madness and sour notes.
The album gets off to a roaring start with the aptly named “Instrumental”. The track begins with some incredibly groovy and upbeat drums and a catchy synth riff, before slowly building with increasingly intense layers of instrumentation. Everything on the track is cathartically crisp, the vibrant horns and subtle guitar notes playing their role perfectly right up the mind-bending crescendo towards the end. We then get a bit of a darker change of pace with a re-imagined version of “Athens, France”. The track is dark, dreary, wallowing, and eerily reminiscent, even if the original version was a bit more visceral and engaging. Wood’s lyricism here is wonderfully descriptive and simultaneously revels in ambiguity, leaving its ultimate meaning entirely up to interpretation. Black Country, New Road are a band that is very good at making their music feel direct, yet still leaving the ultimate takeaway up to the listener. When thinking about For the first time from the lens of someone trying to find meaning in the record through their turmoil and anxiety, this ambiguity is almost genius. Almost anyone could take a line such as “I have learned so little/From what I lost in two thousand and eighteen” and apply their own meaning to it, regardless of what Isaac’s original intention may have been.
The record then hits one more massive highlight with “Science Fair” before taking a bit of a dip with the retool of “Sunglasses”. The new version, while still a cut above any post-punk contemporaries, fails to live up to its predecessor and the mind-blowing heights of competing tracks on the LP. When compared to the incredibly sinister and brooding “Science Fair” or the magnificent closer “Opus”, the song seems to have lost some edge in translation, with the sexual anxiety that made the track so entrancing falling by the wayside with toned down lyrics and a more melodic vocal delivery as well. The instrumentation is a slight upgrade, with deteriorating horns dominating the back half of the track along with Isaac’s impressive vocal performance, making the slow-burn of the following “Track X” a much needed change of pace.
In some way, listening to this record right after release feels revolutionary. Every time I finish it, I feel as though I am a part of something greater, that when it is eventually regarded as one of the best debuts of the last decade, I will be able to say that I was there for it. Black Country, New Road have crafted an album that festers in its dark magnificence, pulling from the deepest depths of the mind and the troubling facets of society to comment on seemingly mundane inadequacies; it is truly a soundtrack for the anxious. It is not without its reassurances though, because when Isaac wails “I am more than adequate!” on “Sunglasses”, the sentiment feels cathartic, like a man taking back his life from what he feels is a deep injustice. For the first time is a harrowing, horrendous, beautiful, magnificent debut that will undoubtedly go down as one of the best albums of the 2020s.