Whenever anyone writes about Black Country, New Road, they have to start from the beginning again. It’s like a game of “I went to shops and I bought…”. It’s not a case of laziness or over contextualisation, but it is a credit to a band who creatively move at an unnatural speed while in perpetual flux – to digest their latest work you really have to acknowledge what they’ve been through in order to deliver it. Every time. The band don’t see it as “going through” much at all, but there’s no question that most groups aren’t asked to ride the changes BCNR already have through careers that have lasted two or three times as long.
Their new, third album is Live at Bush Hall, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. When singer and lyricist Isaac Wood unexpectedly left the group for the good of his mental health in January 2022, he did so four days before the release of their second album, Ants From Up There. Their US tour was pulled but the band weren’t breaking up, just as they’d stuck together when their previous group, Nervous Conditions, was forced to suddenly split following allegations of sexual assault made against their frontman. On that occasion, Wood stepped up to the microphone and BCNR were born, delivering first an album of modernist post-rock that was perfect quite by accident, followed exactly a year later by an album that stylistically felt like a left turn, and also more like a debut than their debut did: “It was never going to be a normal first album,” said the band’s bassist Tyler Hyde, looking back on For The First Time; a debut written and developed on stage each night. “It was going to represent a moment in time. When I reflect on it, I don’t feel as emotionally connected to it as I do to this one [Ants From Up There], which is a better representation of what we all like, and what we’re like as people.” On the face of it, BCNR were no longer taking their cues from Slint, now sounding more like Bright Eyes and similar masters of melodramatic emo folk rock.
But Wood left, and while the band’s own tours were pulled, they knew they had to keep their 2022 diary relatively active, or risk dropping off altogether. Of all things, they decided to honour their festival bookings, having agreed that, with Wood not there to sing the songs, they would write a whole new set to perform to growing crowds on growing stages. It’s those songs that make up Live at Bush Hall – 9 new tracks only heard live until now, recorded over three performances at the small London venue in December 2022. I’ll say it anyway: no other band behaves this way.
Three members have stepped up to the microphone this time (Hyde, saxophonist Lewis Evans and keyboard player May Kershaw), with Hyde fronting five of the nine songs here. The absence of Wood of course gives BCNR yet another change in sound – their third in as many unconventional records, and their biggest yet, although Hyde’s voice does share a certain amount of tremble with that of Wood’s, and it works beautifully from the opening ‘Up Song’ onwards, in her cool, low register as much as when she’s yelling at the ceiling. “Look at what we did together / BCNR friends forever,” sing the band as a group on that song, with the audience heard singing it back unprompted.
Kershaw’s vocals are the prettiest of the three, on 3-part waltzing folk epic ‘The Boy’ and delicate music box ballad ‘Turbines/Pigs’ (a highlight), where she almost resembles Björk and sings accompanied only by piano until the band crash in after 6 minutes, all peels of saxophone and twinkling notes at the far end of the keyboard. It’s only after the maelstrom (here and on a majority of the other songs – BCNR ending on a chaotic flourish is a characteristic that has endured), as the audience cheers once again, that you’re reminded that this is a live album, beautifully recorded and produced as it is, and, more to the point, perfectly performed.
Lyrically, the band have never been more clearly narrative, and some of their most straight up melodies are here, too. Not necessarily across whole songs – because where would the fun in that be – but in runs within ever-shifting styles (of no wave, jazz, baroque pop and, perhaps most of all, folk) that BCNR have made their calling card. The songs still turn away from conventional choruses, but swell and push and pull, and, almost invisibly, coalesce into something resembling musical theatre more than once. It sort of creeps up on you, and everyone will react to that in different ways, at different times, but most likely around the first song Evans sings, ‘Across The Pond Friend’ – a jubilant Beirut-style tale of globetrotting designed to take a West End show into its interval. Even if musicals aren’t your thing, it’s hard to deny that Black Country, New Road could write them to order.
Even at the odd moment when things feel a little “too normal” (‘Laughing Song’) or simply lag (‘The Wrong Trousers’), how can you not be impressed by this band? By their bloody-mindedness, their cavalier attitude to “good business decisions”, the fact that Live at Bush Hall even exists at all. Writing a whole new set to take to festivals, fronted by three new vocalists, ignoring two loved albums (one of them brand new) that fans are desperate to hear – who does that!? Which is to say nothing about the quality of these hastily written and developed songs. It’s sickening, really. And what’s most exciting about it once again, is that we’ve got no idea what Black Country, New Road will do next, or how they’ll sound. Only that it won’t be like this.