Black Country, New Road – Live at Bush Hall – Album Review

Black Country, New Road have had a wild few years as a unit. Debut LP for the first time was nominated for the Mercury Prize, and the following year’s Ants From Up There broke the top three in the UK Album charts. The latter is a feat I’d never have expected possible for an art-rock outfit, much less one so early on in their careers, but BC,NR have enraptured swathes of die-hard fans willing to prop them up as one of the best young bands on the planet.

But there has been a cloud hanging over them of late. At the tail end of January 2022, just days before that second LP would see the light of day, frontman and point-of-view character Isaac Wood would announce his immediate departure from the band, citing mental health reasons. This was a huge blow, and could easily have finished them. Live at Bush Hall was born from this, a concert film showcasing the new material fans would hear on tour, since they’d unanimously decided it wouldn’t make sense to continue to perform Wood’s very personal work without him. Before we get into it, I’d like to clarify that this will predominantly be reviewed as an album, but I need to deal with the film-only elements first.

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Every night at Bush Hall was presented like a different am-dram play, complete with band in relevant costumes, all attributed to the fictional Hughbert/Hubert/Huneberte Dalcros(s)e (night depending). ‘The Taming of the School’ was an end of year prom, ‘I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts’ was a poltergeist story set in a pizza parlour, and ‘When the Whistle Thins’ was, well, an excuse to dress up as farmers.

The reason for all of this, beyond encouraging fun fan-involvement, was described by guitarist Luke Mark to Under the Radar: “We came up with the idea to make the three nights look visually distinct from one another, to scratch the idea of trying to disguise anything. We wanted it to be very honest and let people know that we had three goes at it. This isn’t just us playing the whole thing non-stop.” There are hard cuts in the film, naturally. The set, outfits and room layout change in the blink of an eye, occasionally mid-song. Most impressively, the music sounds no different for it.

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‘Up Song’ has split fans online. Its rhapsodising refrain, “Look at what we did together / BC,NR, friends forever” has invited accusations of corniness. But what did we just talk about? I have to imagine the band with drawn on moustaches, or in overalls, don’t care too much about swimming in those waters. It’s fun, it’s surprisingly poppy despite the six musicians still very much going to town on it, and bassist Tyler Hyde’s vocals transfigure the young act into something they’ve never been before.

On the topic, the Björk-esque vocal inflections of pianist May Kershaw will carry us through sprawling folk-prog suite ‘The Boy’. Opting to split lead vocal duties is a great way not only to showcase the band’s individual talents, but also offset anyone ‘replacing’ Isaac. The track is cut into three clear chapters, and tells the story of a robin with a broken wing, desperately searching for aid in this anthropomorphic animal kingdom. It’s bouncy and quaint for the most part, all parabolic imagery floating on standout woodwind. This didn’t much protect me from the grim reality of the track. “Robin sunk down to the earth, and mud pulled him gradually in / Who am I to think that my selfish genes should keep going on? Can I be the father like I dreamt I might?”.

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‘I Won’t Always Love You’ is a slow burner, with Lewis Evans’ flute and Tyler Hyde’s voice practically indivisible for the first half of the track. Each syllable she sings is accentuated with notation, and then you’re to sit in silent contemplation until the next line. Her sad vibrato, “I needed you, so I could learn more / Who knows what you needed me for” delivers us to a midway point, one where the rumblings of the debut album’s post-rock flavour signify imminent pandemonium. We plunge headlong into yowling saxophone and raucous cymbals for an emotional finale.

‘Across the Pond Friend’ sees our first male vocal, with Evans yearning for simplicity and reunion. I think it’s in bad faith to compare him to Wood simply because he’s male and singing, but I have seen a good bit of it online, so I will say there’s enough stylistically to separate the two. The relaxed and affable writing/delivery here would never bring the previous two records to mind. The group interpolate Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ just for a line, where Evans insists that when he and the titular friend sang together, he “was doing it like May”.

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The central point of ‘Laughing Song’, and its catchiest moment, is an abridged setlist of this exact gig, a meta-narrative on the band’s relationship also seen in the opener. They’ve been tested, and everyone listening knows it; it’s time to deal with it. ‘The Wrong Trousers’ does the same thing in a different way, and makes for an interesting yet unofficial second part. The underpinning of the latter’s chorus being “We made something to be proud of”, repurposes the emotion of losing someone. Once again in an Evans-lead song, a yearning look back conjures appreciation as opposed to devastation. We inch closer to catharsis.

On ‘Turbines/Pigs’, May Kershaw dips back into the fantastical for a nine minute epic of witches and flying pigs. As with ‘The Boy’, her songs are a little more difficult to interpret in a literal sense, but the clear reference to the “pearls before swine” text of Matthew, Chapter 7 demonstrates a feeling of inferiority to someone or something. I got caught up in the brutal imagery of the zip of someone’s stomach breaking, in fact, I do every time I return. Be sure to strap in for the sonic cyclone of piano, violin and drums at the end of this track.

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Tyler Hyde returns for ‘Dancers’, rethinking her social perception in the kind of way you can only achieve when you really need to sleep. “Dancers stand very still on the stage” is bafflingly earwormy for a single line, albeit hypnotically repeated, to remind you how much you can forget (“you recognise the faces, but once you think past that / All the elements, well, they’re just gone”) even with the time to focus. Drummer Charlie Wayne absolutely busting a lung on backing vocals in the last section stops things from drying up. A shorter, slower reprise of ‘Up Song’ plays us out, and lets the BC,NR faithful know they’re still committed to cohesion. In the film at this point, the members perform the curtain call bow to the crowd, as credits begin to roll.

I went into Live at Bush Hall like a lot of fans, not knowing the level of creative input Wood had been responsible for, and wondering if the band that has most captured my imagination in recent years would sound unrecognisably different. The baroque pop leanings of the new work certainly won’t get you to ‘Sunglasses’, but neither would anything on Ants From Up There. There’s always been a lot of moving parts to BC, NR, and in retrospect it was silly to think things would be in disarray after one part moved on indefinitely. Some tracks are stronger than others, sure, but the very best of this album might be their best stuff period. It’s a beautiful and fascinating record captured at an irreproducible time in their history. I cannot recommend it enough.

Live at Bush Hall is out now.

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