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Black Country, New Road Why Ants From Up There is the best album of my adult lifetime

Our music editor makes the case for the south London group's second record heralding a new era of sincerity and high romanticism.

Concorde Press Shot

Black Country, New Road before the departure of singer Isaac Wood.

Rosie Foster.

The first time I heard Ants From Up There, the second album from Black Country, New Road, I didn’t like it at all.

I was irritated by the prog rock flourishes and over-the-top ornamentation of its opening moments – then came the overly-stylised vocals and the self-consciously kooky track titles (just get a load of ‘Chaos Space Marine’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’). The band’s cutesy categorisation as ‘Windmill scene’ (after a pub in Brixton, not because they’re from Lincolnshire) certainly felt appropriate.

Ants from up there

The cover of Ants From Up There, designed by artist Simon Monk.

I put it on again a few weeks later when I was walking around Sheffield at night, trying to shake a depression that had settled over winter like fog. I gave it my full attention, hoping to let the record wash over me and bypass my critical faculties. After all, it had received five-star reviews across the board. Before I’d made it home, or to closer ‘Basketball Shoes’, I was so overwhelmed by its intensity that I found myself willing it to end.

Since then I’ve listened to Ants From up There almost every day. It’s become a part of my life in the way albums did when I was a teenager. But I wasn’t a huge fan of the first album either – and I still feel that way. 2020’s For the First Time felt like a record to respect, not enjoy. There’s no doubt that it’s clever, drawing musical inspiration from the more esoteric end of jazz and switching up the narrative perspective like an Auden poem.The lyrics are a knotty web of references and allusions – fragments of images, the names of celebrities, found lines from advertising. They don’t seem to be about love. BCNR’s debut is an exercise in High Modernism – one that’s austere and expertly rendered.

By contrast, Ants, which arrived exactly a year after For the First Time, is imbued with that most unfashionable of qualities: it's utterly sincere and heartfelt throughout, often embarrassingly so. The detached observations of the debut have been jettisoned. In their place is a set of ten unrequited love songs blown up to an end-of-the-world, John Martin scale.

Like many of the best lyric writers (especially Bowie), singer Isaac Wood achieves a rare balance between the cryptic and the concrete – a canny skill that makes his lyrics endlessly poreable-over. What is “the headset” that the object of his affection wears in bed on ‘Bread Song’? Who is Henry, the “god of weather” on ‘Snow Globes’? What is “the clamp” from ‘Basketball Shoes’? Is it the band, a relationship, depression?

But these little puzzles are offset by lines that cut through like a knife. “I fell to my feet and the doctor said, ‘We are unfortunately running out of options to treat’ – what a funny way to speak,” Wood sings with gentle resignation on ‘Concorde’. Later in the same song his voice almost breaks as he cries out, “I was made to love you! Can't you tell?”, one of many confessions so revealing they cause you to wince. It's such a pathetic sentiment, so completely self-debasing, but one that’s instantly recognisable to anyone (i.e. everyone) who has found themselves ensnared by unrequited love.

Some moments just hit you for no apparent reason. Why is the part where the full band chorus “Good morning” on the ludicrously melodramatic ‘The Place Where He Inserted The Blade’ so affecting? Why is Wood’s use of the antiquated sobriquet ‘darling’ on almost every song so moving?

In the tradition of so much of the best art, Wood’s protagonist is a deeply unreliable narrator. The intensity of his affection for his beloved (who, we’re repeatedly told, has “Billie Eilish style”) and the nicknames he reveals on ‘Concorde’ suggest the album concerns the breakdown of a long-term relationship. But then on ‘Good Will Hunting’ he tells us it’s “just been a weekend, but in my mind we summer in France with our genius daughters now.” Is this someone he’s just met? Yet on ‘Bread Song’, Wood tells his beloved that he just woke up, “and you already don't care that I tried my best to hold you”. His version of events is evidently not the full story.

Beyond the words, Wood’s six fellow band members act as the greatest of musical enablers, heightening the intensity of obsession and wrenching as much drama as possible out of every second. Their use of dynamics is a step up from the loud/quiet/loud shock tactics of their post-rock predecessors. The band, a true collective and an organic entity in the Can sense, swell and recede around the shape of each song, as on ‘Concorde’, where six musicians fall away to let Tyler Hyde’s lilting bassline re-anchor the song before its triumphant climax.

The symbiotic relationship between the seven band members is only heightened by the production job, which has an immediacy many albums lack (tellingly it’s the first record produced by the band’s live engineer Sergio Maschetzko, which might explain the absence of studio frills). It sounds like a production for a band much less well-known than BCNR, and the rejection of the wall-of-sound approach allows each instrument to shine in the mix (see May Kershaw’s seasick synthesisers that open ‘Good Will Hunting’). This could be a DIY recording and that’s no bad thing, because listening to it feels like you’re present in the room with the group in a way few rock records have convincingly managed since Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.

On ‘Bread Song’, Luke Mark’s rippling guitar underscores the sense of a once solid relationship hitting turbulence, with the chamber-pop instrumentation matching the delicate domesticity of the song’s central premise: a squabble over eating toast in bed. Violinist Georgia Ellery decorates ‘Haldern’ with beautiful Steve Reich-like patterns that supercharge the poignancy of Wood asking his lover to “ignore the hole I’ve dug again.” Eventually, as the singer dissolves into introspection, Ellery closes the song with an exercise in pure minimalism, creating swells and eddies of sound around Kershaw’s piano and ending up somewhere near the cellular structure of Terry Riley’s ‘In C’.

Then there’s Charlie Wayne’s drumming on the towering ‘Snow Globes’, which is frankly one of the best things ever recorded, and in my book the only successful use of free jazz techniques in a pop song except for Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’.

What can make Ants exhausting to listen to is that where most albums might have one or two tracks that form an emotional peak, this one has seven (you wonder whether gentle instrumental ‘Mark’s Theme’ was added just to offer respite). The septet wring more emotion from each song than most bands do out of an entire career, culminating in the jaw-dropping ‘Basketball Shoes’, which somehow summates and surpasses all that has gone before it. It’s an astonishing thing: a twelve-minute symphony that eventually buckles under its own weight and crashes to earth in a skronked-out fireball.

It’s undeniable that Wood’s much-publicised departure from the band caused Ants to acquire its own mythology before it even came out, like Abbey Road and Bowie’s Blackstar did under different circumstances. The band’s shock announcement that BCNR would continue as a six-piece arrived only four days before the record itself, and it’s impossible to separate the work from Wood’s plaintive and poignant description of the state of his mental health (as with the lyrics, his words are startlingly direct: “I have bad news which is that I have been feeling sad and afraid too”). Anyone who’s made it through this 58-minute dark-night-of-the-soul will be relieved to read that, according to the band, Wood is feeling better now.

The record has won unanimous critical acclaim, but this early in its life it’s difficult to know whether it’ll have quite the same effect on people who aren’t like me – that is, the emotionally highly strung. But this already feels like an album that embodies its own time in the way that Burial’s Untrue did in 2007. It’s a perfect reflection of our present moment by a band who effectively no longer exist in it.

The documentary-maker Adam Curtis has a theory that, culturally speaking, we find ourselves on the cusp of a new era of 19th century-style High Romanticism. He predicts this will see a re-enchantment of the world, spearheaded by works of art that scale new heights of emotional intensity. If he’s right, Ants From Up There could stand as that era’s first lasting monument.

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