Jun 09, 2021
By Gareth O’Malley
Knowing Kele Okereke, he was always going to have some form of album out this year. When last we heard from him, two years ago, he released two radically different projects; namely the musical Leave to Remain and 2042. The former, a gay love story set against the backdrop of Brexit; the latter, his fourth studio album proper—an intense examination of transatlantic race relations that also found Okereke taking stock of his place in the world as a Black man.
2042, which simmered with tension beneath the surface of its deeply personal subject matter, took on renewed relevance last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, two months after the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic and Okereke’s plans for the year were brought to a screeching halt. Those plans had included the debut of his second musical and further work on the forthcoming sixth Bloc Party album and follow-up to 2016’s HYMNS, for which Okereke postponed his 2042 solo tour, but they were now on ice, so what did he spend last year doing? Making another album, of course—in itself, a declaration of his resolve—a collection that searches for calm amidst chaos.
From the outset, The Waves Pt. 1 seems like a rather disjointed affair, having been conceived as a “cleansing” instrumental record in stark contrast to its predecessor. Bookended by meditative instrumental pieces “Message From the Spirit World” and “The Heart of the Wave,” it strikes a rather different note than many will be used to from him, which is precisely the point, yet the gap between the record’s beginnings and its final form is bridged remarkably well.
Loops, stacked vocal harmonies, and sonic minimalism are the order of the day, with faint percussion cropping up here and there—far removed from the full-bodied approach of previous work. “The Way We Live Now” is an early highlight, a bruised and seething soundscape underpinning a tale of infidelity and betrayal, while his take on Bronski Beat’s debut single and 1984 hit “Smalltown Boy” is a sparse rendition that aches with a fittingly melancholic sense of loneliness—after all, his fifth solo album is such in every sense of the word, with nothing to fill the space in these songs but more of himself. Elsewhere, on “They Didn’t See It Coming,” Okereke revels in isolated moonlit walks, a casual observer of deserted London streets and delighted with his own company, with a sweet and uplifting instrumental to match that spirals upward into a gleeful resolution; a moment of sheer joy.
“Nineveh” is the album’s most cinematic offering, anxiously navigating its way through two minutes of a verse-chorus-verse structure before unfurling into a soaring instrumental coda that is as dense as an album such as this can get. The release of tension is palpable, highlighting one of the record’s particular strengths: due to its bare-bones composition, dynamic shifts have a pronounced impact, calling to mind the natural ebb and flow of—you guessed it—waves. For an album borne from closed-in circumstances, it’s surprisingly immediate, with “How to Beat the Lie Detector” and “From a Place of Love” finding Okereke playing to his strengths.
While some moments will leave the listener wishing for full-band heft, his latest offering is buoyed by the strength of the songwriting on offer. The Waves Pt. 1 provides a fascinating look into how Okereke works with the essentials of his sound. Its title is suggestive of a Pt. 2 being in the works, though whether we get that, the aforementioned musical, or Bloc Party LP6 first remains to be seen. We’ll get something—he’s undeniably on a restless creative streak, and nobody knows where he’ll come ashore next; given that this album was never part of the plan, perhaps not even Okereke himself. (www.kele.bandcamp.com)
Author rating: 7.5/10
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