line — not just because it invokes the stiff shyness the frontman’s entire rock-star career has been a public effort to conquor, but because it quotes a much earlier line from Bloc Party’s 2007 single “The Prayer.” That is, Kele Okereke is a singer who has prayed in song for grace and dancing feet not once, but twice. In an itchy career that’s searched for relief in pummeling post-punk, glitchy electropop and EDM crooning, the repeated line counts as a manifesto.
Lord, give me grace / And dancing feet / As I conquer all anxiety
When Okereke sang it the first time, Bloc Party was following up their thundering debut Silent Alarm, an ‘00s post-punk classic of starry guitars and roiling rhythms — the latter courtesy of Gordon Moakes and Matt Tong, whose bass and drums kept Okereke’s twitchy melodies hurtling forward. Weekend In the City was darker than its predecessor, more conflicted about success and maybe a little over conflicted about the meaning of rock-star service; it didn’t have the sheer momentum Silent Alarm had drawn from its boiling clouds of drums. But if the Moakes/Tong rhythm section had been the star of the band’s first album, Weekend In the City was, in a way, Okereke’s own debut. Not as vocalist — his strained, urgent yelp had taken point throughout Silent Alarm — but as a full-fledged uncomfortable star. “I am trying to be heroic,” he announced in the album’s first second, and his frustrated striving for heroism carved out a clearer character than Silent Alarm‘s anxious, lovesick college kid. Abruptly famous, Okereke was alienated more than ever from his accelerating world, and more confident about saying so; he recoiled from fame’s exhausting vortex even as his songs began to spin inside it.
You don’t actually have to be too moved by Okereke’s shy-kid-makes-good travails to be thankful for them, as they’re what have made Bloc Party so strange and restless. Third album Intimacy was a pummeling listen, crammed full of jagged guitar and digital blurts, compressed into a dense, headache-courting brick of sound. From its title to its spit-swapping cover art to its noisy, full-panic single “Mercury,” Intimacy was genuinely abrasive, where Bloc Party’s lithe post-punk-revivalist peers were ingratiating; genuinely ugly where other bands were opting for pretty.
Part of that deliberate ugliness was thematic — for the shy and suddenly ascendant Okereke, 21st-century intimacy could be a frightening thing. But we think it had more to do with his voice. While Bloc Party’s follow-up Four retreated from Intimacy’s garish electronics, a pair of Kele solo albums explored the lurching electropop the band had mostly abandoned — a dense, busy style whose burped hooks suited the singer’s jumpy quaver more than the winding melodies he co-wrote with his band. Even on Silent Alarm, his strained voice had never quite taken the reins of the stormy mix; on later, synthier work, including as a guest vocalist for producers like Tiesto, he turned his uncomfortable croon into a front-and-center asset.
You don’t actually have to be too moved by Okereke’s shy-kid-makes-good travails to be thankful for them
Four would be a last bow for the old Bloc Party — Hymns is their first album to be recorded without Moakes and Tong, and though it’s nothing like the confrontational Intimacy, its balladeering is often closer to Kele’s solo work than it is to the bygone version of the band. We’ll miss that band — on that first album in particular, they were a muscled, whirling glory. But it’s on comparatively mellow electro tracks like the thrumming new “My True Name” that Kele Okereke seems to have found his grace, and his feet.