By Henry Boehm
If I had listened to Live at Bush Hall two years ago, I wouldn’t have thought that it was a Black Country, New Road album. Each new release marks such a radical sonic shift from the last that each album could occupy its own “era” in the band’s stylistic development. Their 2021 debut, For the First Time, was characterized by an abrasive, post-rock sound that led the band to cheekily dub themselves the “world’s second-best Slint tribute act.” Their second album, the critically acclaimed Ants from Up There, marked a move towards chamber pop, drawing influences from Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens. Just four days prior to its release, lead vocalist, lead guitarist, and primary songwriter Isaac Wood announced his departure from the band due to his mental health struggles. The rest of the band announced that they would no longer perform any songs written with Isaac, but that they were already working on new material. A month ago, the band released Live at Bush Hall, a concert film recorded during the previous December. The album version was released on March 24.
Rather than retreating to their edgier, post-rock roots, Black Country, New Road continues to push forward on Live at Bush Hall. The album opener, “Up Song,” begins with a jumpy saxophone riff that sounds straight off of Ants from Up There before launching into the lively, piano-laden verse, featuring bassist Tyler Hyde on vocals. Though a striking change from Wood’s powerful voice, Hyde’s light voice fits well with the dense instrumentation. The lyrics are likely connected to Isaac and his struggles with mental health (“Did you exchange your soul with the devil/All so that you could survive the dark pit in which you once lived?”). However, the song comes to an optimistic conclusion: “Look at what we did together/BCNR, friends forever,” a lyric at risk of being cloying were it not so earnest. BCNR is back, baby!
“I Won’t Always Love You” again features Hyde on vocals, opening with the line “I will always love you and/I will always want you.” She is accompanied by flute, piano, and violin in a delightfully baroque opening section. The song gradually picks up as the guitar and drums join in, with lyrics lamenting a gradually deteriorating relationship. The instrumentation reaches a dramatic climax, including a frantic saxophone line reminiscent of “Science Fair,” as the narrator, amidst the bombast, finally declares “I won’t always love you and/I won’t always want you.”
“The Wrong Trousers” is probably the weakest of the bunch. Saxophonist Lewis Evans provides the vocals, and though his voice isn’t terrible, his sustained notes have a way of boring into the ears. The verses meander, and the lyrics (“I’ll look back kindly/For we made something to be proud of”) seem to rehash what we’ve already heard on “Up Song” (“Look at what we did together”).
“Turbines/Pigs” is the clear centerpiece of the album. The opening lyrics, sung by pianist May Kershaw, reference invisibility (“Thought no one could see me now/I didn’t put my clothes on”), a theme established in “Up Song” (“All these things will remain invisible to the world”), as well as a desperate plea from the narrator: “Don’t waste your pearls on me/I’m only a pig.” May is accompanied only by sparse piano until nearly 4 minutes into the song, when it begins to build as the rest of the instruments are introduced, peaking in a 3 minute instrumental climax
“Turbines/Pigs” invites comparisons to “Basketball Shoes,” Ants from Up There’s closer. Like that song, it’s arguably the musical and emotional zenith of the album. However, where the climax of “Basketball Shoes” is centered upon Isaac’s agonized vocal delivery and lyrics. The climax of “Turbines/Pigs” is purely instrumental, as if the band is acknowledging that Isaac is irreplaceable, consciously leaving a gap where vocals might be expected.
But it’s not over yet! In “Dancers,” Tyler returns to the mic, with lyrics touching upon feelings of detachment and self-loathing (“The way she talks is dumb/She’s fake in the way she talks to them”), elaborating upon the theme of inadequacy referenced in “Turbines/Pigs.” The band joins together for a bombastic final chorus, before simmering back down, transitioning seamlessly into the final song, “Up Song (Reprise).” This reprise, in a complete reversal from the original, is quiet and moody. The song, unable to muster the energy for any choruses, ends on a slightly pessimistic note, returning to that line about the devil before the audience erupts into applause.
Live at Bush Hall is an exceptionally courageous undertaking. Black Country, New Road were not only faced with following up one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the decade, but they had to do so without their frontman. Nevertheless, the band is able to pull together and create a fresh, cohesive, and poignant work. The album reflects a band in transition, aided by the fact that it was recorded live, allowing for a looser sound and more musical experimentation.
Though not as excellent as Ants from Up There, Live at Bush Hall nonetheless exceeded my expectations, both in the quality of music and the rapid timeframe in which it was recorded and released. Some BCNR fans might be turned off of the album due to the dramatic sonic change from their previous material, but to ignore Live at Bush Hall is to ignore Black Country, New Road’s versatility and constantly advancing sound, perhaps the band’s most admirable qualities.