‘Ants From Up There’ swaggers with a fake innocence and begs you to call it a classic.
Credit: Ninja Tune
Black Country, New Road’s second LP is unbearably safe, asking you to pity it into a cult classic status it will never deserve.
It is now well documented the impact that the internet can have on music. Whether it be the positives of thrusting a never-heard artist into stardom thanks to TikTok, or the negatives of creating cults of personality around Korean boybands, the full breadth of what’s possible with the mixing of the caesium and water of culture is a significant part of our times.
One of its most torrid traits is its ability to partition artists off from scrutiny. Acts are rushed into fame and drowned in praise by the music press, throwing in wild sentiments that their music will be a ‘before and after’ moment for a scene, as though one can judge that without seeing how they’re regarded 20 years from now.
Somewhere down that line, it was posited that Black Country, New Road were worthy of that praise. Their 2021 debut LP For The First Time was like the foretold return of a messiah for certain cliques of the online music discussion community. As interesting as it was at times, its incessant try-hard nature and awkward, forced lyricism – that line about being scared of roadmen on ‘Sunglasses’ doesn’t sit well with me – meant that I found it difficult to enjoy.
“Not only did the singles leading up to its release all have an irritating sense of self-righteousness to them, the whole record reeks of the stuff.”
What to follow up with then when whole sects of the alternative music community are turning to you to deliver the second coming? Ants From Up There offers a facade of cleverness right from the get-go with its quirky opening track, but ultimately, is an unbearably safe record. Nothing ever feels at stake during its 59 minute run time, nor is there a moment of tension or passion that really grabs me.
But don’t let that stop the band from imploring you that everything they do is a risk. Every song feels written in a way that pre-determines its own legacy, as though each is its own personal toil to achieve indie immaculateness. Those caddish riffs across the whole of ‘Haldern’ scream “No, we weren’t joking when we talked about being the next Arcade Fire”. ‘Chaos Space Marine’s instrumentation desperately wants to be revolutionary, but ultimately comes off like a Billy Joel tribute act. Meanwhile, the guitars on ‘Snow Globes’ being in the same key as ‘Bodies’ by Car Seat Headrest does not feel like a coincidence.
But the risk is nowhere to be found. Not only did the singles leading up to its release all have an irritating sense of self-righteousness to them, the whole record reeks of the stuff. Wood speaks to his audience with contrived takes and unfun pop culture references (as though the mere mention of “Billie Eilish” might convince you that they really are cool and relevant!). His thoughts on modern isolation may well very much be the mood of the moment, don’t get me wrong. But when it’s dressed up with the pitying whimsy of their songwriting, it comes across with a manipulative, faked innocence.
“Like a doctor shooting a litre of adrenaline into a cadaver, it shoves its orchestra of rustic instruments in your face to force any sense of life out of the safe, unengaging songwriting.”
All of which makes the heaping of praise Ants From Up There has received just as predictable as the music. Black Country, New Road want you to believe that there is even an inch of this record that is organic, sporadic or inspired, but this is industry-mandated perfection. Like a doctor shooting a litre of adrenaline into a cadaver, it shoves its orchestra of rustic instruments in your face to force any sense of life out of the safe, unengaging songwriting. It’s an album that wants to be considered ‘indie’ just so it can be compared to the classics of the genre, as though it deserves a seat at the table for having worked so hard at those shows at The Windmill.
One therefore has to ask: is this the best we can herald as a “future cult classic”? If the record’s peaks are “head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries”, then we are declaring that all we want from indie and alternative is arrogant self-importance. As quirky, affable and relatable as they want to come across, the reality of Black Country, New Road’s music is that it lectures at you. Ants is protected not only by the praise it would inevitably get on release, but also by the fake innocence it swaggers about with. When offered the chance to dazzle, it waves a white flag and asks you to pity it, as though it has ever had it hard.
I have no doubt that the love people have poured out for this album since its release is genuine. But the entire experience of listening to it feels just as isolated as the ongoing argument on the record’s RateYourMusic comment box. The world where this is regarded as a titanic moment for modern music is not the world where my favourite records exist. But then again, perhaps I’m just in a different bubble of the internet.