Twelve years of Bell X1 have drilled the band fairly close to the epicentre of Ireland’s musical consciousness. But the latest album, Bloodless Coup, is so much a mass of contradictions flailing from the sublime to the ridiculous, that it’s hard to see what kind of dent they’ll make beyond the Emerald Isle.
Pre-1999, Damien Rice fronted the band as Juniper, but this most recent release makes it six since they parted company over creative differences. The threesome’s 2009 album, Blue Lights On The Runway, achieved pole position in the Irish charts, prompting lazy comparisons that slotted the band between Talking Heads and Coldplay. But David Byrne‘s lyrical wit, political opinion and tenacity is hard to trace on this album, and Coldplay might have a thing or two to argue about creating memorable anthems.
Bloodless Coup’s first touch is enchanting. Hey Anna Lena’s nursery rhyme piano is set over a glitchy Radioheadish rhythm, juxtaposed with Paul Noonan’s voice at its most endearing. Built To Last is counted among these sparse highlights, with a beat forged from a deep buzz and soft static. The preaching and heavy production are also hemmed back here, to reveal straightforward tell-it-like-it-is lines evocative of Bob Dylan, which much of the album is left crying out for.
Velcro might’ve been the nominated single, but it doesn’t match on originality. Its Counting Crows, American soft rock structure with a sole electric guitar makes it MOR palatable but instantly forgettable. And “I’ll be your tongue, you’ll be my groove, I’ll be your positive, you’ll be my negative” begins a disturbing trend for cringeworthy rhyming couplets – “Haloumi” and “knew me” dare to dance line-to-line later in the record.
Nightwatchmen’s whispered Foo Fighters Everlong-style chords are thoughtfully understated, but the track struggles to shake an underlying cheesiness – as do many others – because the attempts to glean meaning feel so forced.
Hints of promise across the album are doomed for the bulldozer, by some incessant need for production that will probably give Bell X1 more mainstream appeal. Would-be film soundtrack out-take Sugar High’s simple keyboard loop and fuzzy background have simplistic beauty, but an ’80s Tron-like synth and computerised backing vocals over-complicate and curl the toes uncomfortably. Even Safer Than Love’s delicate piano melody is undermined by Auto-Tune.
Beyond the pursuit of swelling the fanbase, it’s hard to see what kind of album Bell X1 were really trying to make with Bloodless Coup; a sing-along soft rock crowd-expander, or an ode to simplicity and storytelling? Fortunately for credibility’s sake, it’s the latter the trio are infinitely better at, but unfortunately, for this album, it’s these songs that are too few and far between.