When have you over-listened to an album? Knowing each track inside out seems like a logical point; nothing’s new, nothing’s surprising, you see each musical bend in the road coming a mile off. But that’s not necessarily true. Great albums – like all great art – change with second, third, or ninth visits and can strike you differently at different times and in different places. This is a review of Ants from up there.
The context in which it’s heard changes an album whether it’s the first or the thirtieth time of listening, and it seems that the more you hear great music, and the more contexts in which you hear it, the more it blends into your experience and becomes a composite of every time and place you’ve heard it. We’ll come back to this.
Since its release at the start of February, Black Country, New Road’s second album ‘Ants from up there’ has been on heavy rotation in my flat. I already liked their first, more guitar-driven album ‘For the first time’, and my first run-through of the new album was overheard by my flatmate, who then listened to it herself and we’ve both been constantly listening to it since.
Our flat has become an aural shrine to the album. It’s like a BC, NR hall of mirrors where one of us resurfaces from our headphones only to hear the same song being sung (a bit less tunefully, maybe in a few different keys) in the shower. Later on, another track might be hummed in fragments over the washing up, or echo down the stairs from a bedroom. My third flatmate isn’t a big music fan and doesn’t know that we’ve basically transformed his home into an angsty post-punk prison*.
For the record, I’m fine with my imprisonment with this album. It’s stunning. Tonally, it’s a cathartic mix of heartbreak and joy, with moments of full-blooded commitment to both emotions that make you sit up and listen. ‘Bread Song’ is intimate and painful – ‘ok, well I just woke up and you already don’t care/ That I tried my best to hold you through the headset that you wear’ – whereas ‘Chaos Space Marine’ begins with a jaunty, baroque-pop meander through strings and saxophone and an adventuring, sea shanty lyric: ‘The war is over/ Lift the anchor, set an open course/ For New York state lines’.
The closing third of the album is where size, volume and angst take over. The final three tracks get longer, louder and more anguished as they unfold; the sporadic and ear-shatteringly mixed drums of ‘Snow Globes’ give way to an episodic, 12-minute crescendo on ‘Basketball Shoes’, this closing out with what might be the best lyric on the album: ‘All I’ve been forms the drone/ we sing the rest/ oh, your generous loan to me/ your crippling interest.’
‘Ants from Up there’ is constructed for multiple listens.
Lyrical refrains and metaphors run throughout the tracklist, from the ‘Concorde’ metaphor that ties the whole thing together to multiple references to Billie Eilish. Musical riffs and phrases pop up in different iterations from start to finish. These things come with repeated listens; in the shower, at a desk, working out, walking to the shop, in the shop, leaving the shop.
An album, particularly one in headphones, is the only artform that can follow you around and change with where you are. In the wind and the sun along the Thames, the band’s exuberant ‘Good Morning!’ in the chorus of ‘The place where he inserted the blade’ feels like a salute and lengthens your stride. On a deserted Northern Line platform near midnight, the lonely guitar intro of ‘Concorde’ comes straight from an imagined busker just invisible round the bend of the track. The same guitar part feels despondent late at night after a fourth beer.
This fluid relationship between the songs and how they’re heard is inevitable, to some extent. Studies have shown that when remembering something, the relevant pathways in the brain change so that, in reality, you’re more likely remembering the last time you remembered something, rather than remembering the thing itself.
Naturally, if you spend a week listening to a single album on repeat, in a variety of places, your experience of that album will become transient and reflect where you last heard it. The album becomes a composite thing in so far as you experience it, made up of the layers of the last time you heard it, and the time before, and the time before, and the innumerable times you listen to one track or skip around it or get interrupted halfway through a song.
It’s possible that this sort of relentlessness would ruin a great album, and it certainly would a mediocre one (proof: IDLES’ UltraMono (their worst album), which gets tiring the first time, let alone the 7th).
Not here, though. It’s definitely given me a confused perspective on what’s happening on the record; certain moments, like the opening to ‘Good Will Hunting’, bring to mind a specific memory of walking along listening to the song before anything about the song itself. It’s a siren-like synth note that wobbles into place, then replaced by a swaying guitar riff that mirrors the opening lyric where someone teeters along a raised ledge, ‘Hands out for balance/ you slip and you almost grab mine/ but you find your feet/ and I never wanted so much someone to fall’. The memory in question is of a windy day alone by Shadwell Basin.
This desperate, thwarted desire for intimacy runs veinlike through the album, and frankly a week’s worth of constant listening is enough to leave you desperate for a meaningful hug. Alongside this vein, though, is one of big, triumphant sounds and the occasional hilarious saxophone fill.
The tonal balance between bleak and bombastic is executed expertly, and the record’s tone is almost as hard to pin down as its genre. It comes firmly out of rock influences that characterise the first album, but jazz, chamber-pop and baroque string parts are all over the place to the extent that it begins to defy characterisation. The songs are often idiosyncratically structured as well, with vastly different sections and moods contained in the same track and held together by violin and sax motifs. Its genres are bonkers, but coherently bonkers.
‘Ants from up there’ has echoed around my flat for the last 10 days, both in fragments and as a whole. My flatmate and I have both said that we should stop listening to it, but neither of us have and it threatens to become an addiction. Four days before the album was released, singer Isaac Wood announced that he was leaving the band for mental health reasons.
The band then announced that they wouldn’t be performing material produced with Wood but would make new music as a six-piece. ‘Ants From Up There’ then, sits as an artifact that may realistically never be performed in its entirety, never altered by the chaos of a gig or experienced in a heavy, sweaty crowd. So I – and every fan of this album – is left with only their internal, personal experience of it.
That’s partially true of all albums of course, but the knowledge that it won’t be performed in full by its creators puts more emphasis on the various experiences that come to mind when hearing it, the closed-off intense reactions between the outside world and the album in your headphones. All in all, it’s awesome and it’s addictive. Please listen responsibly.
*The term ‘post-punk’ has essentially lost all meaning. For one thing, it’s pretty much been around since punk, and has encompassed so wide a variety of artists as to have lost almost any cohesion besides being interested in punk itself, either as inspiration or opposition. Today, it refers to a wide roster of bands who have risen to prominence in recent years and vary hugely in style and content (IDLES, Black Country, New Road, Fontaines DC, Parquet Courts, Dry Cleaning, even Black Midi can all be found with post-punk descriptions.) Nevertheless, it’s a somewhat helpful term to use if you know what it means.