Kele Okereke is the frontman for dance rock group Bloc Party. When the band bust onto the music scene in 2005 with their debut album “Silent Alarm”, many hailed them as brilliant innovators on the forefront of something incredible. Well, time passed, hype died down, and after two follow-up albums that didn’t quite capitalize on their initial record’s promise, Bloc Party decided to take a little bit of a break. It’s been during this short hiatus that Okereke has taken it upon himself to experiment with some new sounds and make a record on his own, calling the new project simply Kele. The solo debut is titled “The Boxer” and it’s out this week.
Given Bloc Party’s propensity for making dance music that’s driven by guitars and strong beats, you had to figure that Kele would dive in one direction or the other when it came time to going solo. It would seem a little odd though if he chose the rock direction instead of the dance one, which is why he smartly made a beeline towards electronica. Bloc Party’s last album “Intimacy” all but spelled that out for you anyways. The beats on “The Boxer” tend to come fast and furious, seemingly setting you up for a really fun dance party, all backed by that familiar voice of his. Guitars are almost entirely absent across the album, though they do make appearances here and there, perhaps most notably on “The Other Side”. That and “Unholy Thoughts” are probably the tracks that sound the most like the Bloc Party stuff you’re familiar with – the latter so much so that you’ve got to wonder if it was a leftover from the “Intimacy” sessions. But primarily you get a whole lot of swirling electronica that, while great for the clubs, has to make you wonder exactly how different it is from the thousands of other electro artists out there. Kele is no innovator, at least not in the sense that somebody like Flying Lotus or Aphex Twin have been. Though he may be relatively new at trying to do all this on his own, for somebody with a decent track record as part of Bloc Party, you’d expect him to stumble less than most others might. Well, throw out those expectations, because Kele has stumbled out of the starting gate.
When it comes to experimenting with sounds and trying things outside of his own comfort zone, Kele seems to do okay. You get a song like “On the Lam”, wherein he turns up the helium pitch on his vocals to the point where if you didn’t know any better, you might suspect that a woman has taken over singing duties. That combined with some solid beats draws your attention to what might have been a relatively pedestrian song otherwise. Similarly, a song like “Rise” starts off pensively with some xylophone work that sticks around just long enough to get boring, but then transforms into a massive build-up and release that’s one of the most cathartic and exhilarating moments on the entire record. It’s just too bad those kinds of moments are so few and far between on “The Boxer”. What also comes too few and far between? How about the hooks. There’s barely any to be found, as Kele apparently thinks he can skate by on some decent beats sustained through much of a song. Either that, or he was so busy crafting these songs that he just plain forgot that sometimes you need an oft-repeated chorus to stick in peoples’ heads. So because of the lack of hooks, there aren’t any singular tracks you’ll remember easily and want to go back to. Sure, you may come away from the album thinking it was a good time, but beyond that there’s little to keep you invested in repeat plays. Add that to the gloomy lyrics on this record that most Bloc Party songs have as well, and there’s something else to not waste your time on. But if you really want to hear sad, turn on the pair of ballads the album has to offer in the form of “New Rules” and “All the Things I Could Never Say”. Kele gets super emotional and wears his heart on his sleeve for those songs, and the results are more whiny than they are elegantly sad poetry. Yes, he’s upset, but we could do without the self-aggrandizing platitudes, most of which don’t help us identify with the turmoil he’s going through.
Since we’re talking about “The Boxer”, let’s spar with some wordplay for a minute in an attempt to wrap this whole thing up. With the martial stomp of “Walk Tall”, Kele comes charging out of his corner seemingly ready for a fight to knock our senses off balance. While he does land a few good punches initially, especially heading into “On the Lam”, we quickly come to realize that though this is a horse of a different color, we’ve faced this opponent in some capacity before as part of Bloc Party. In that respect, we’re able to get a better grasp as to where he’s coming from and what moves he might make. The words he’s throwing at us are the same as they’ve always been, so we can defend against that pretty easily. And then after the first round the coach in our corner tells us that Kele is having some severe problems with his hooks. He can jab just fine, but seems mechanically unable to bring a strong punch around any other way. The times he tries to force a hook on us, it’s something we can easily dodge and counter with brute force. That’s his main weakness, and we can exploit it for the rest of the match. After a couple rounds he’s in much worse shape than us, despite having the occasional trick or engaging melody up his sleeve. Kele then takes his love of the dramatic to new heights, looking to give the crowd more of a spectacle than an actual victory. He slows down the tempo and wears disappointment on his face in an effort to convince us to take it easy on him. It’s not that we’re heartless, it’s just that his display sounds and feels manipulative, which it most likely is. So we don’t let up. Kele goes down, and the match is quickly over. Our moral victory, in this case, is that we don’t have to listen to “The Boxer” again if we don’t want to. Will Kele fair better when/if he returns to Bloc Party? There’s only one way to answer that question: probably.