By Owen Fidler; Photography by Owen Fidler
We live in an era where music is more accessible than ever, where finding music can be as simple as scrolling through 10-second clips generated from a Spotify homepage category titled “what indie love song r u?” Consequently, one can feel awfully disconnected from the art that beats through their headphones, into their eardrums on their walk to Vollum. As with any media, music is not just about the finished product itself — it’s about the stories, the people, and the experiences that produce it: the bursts of inspiration and the emotional vulnerability it takes to convert writing on a page to a song in front of a crowd of hundreds.
Sometimes you hear music that pulls you in, that tugs at your heart, music where composed sounds feel as if it were written to enhance exactly how you feel in that very moment. This happened to me when I discovered the album “For the First Time” by Black Country, New Road, an experimental rock/post-punk album which embodies feelings of anxiety, uncomfortability, and vulnerability.
These emotional themes come through in vague, personal lyrics which reference pop culture in an almost detached form, as lead singer Isaac Wood wishes “all [his] kids would stop dressing up like Richard Hell.” “I told you I loved you in front of Black MIDI,” he ruminates, in the softer “Track X,” before bringing back grainy guitar, dramatic saxophone, sporadic drums, and moody violin in the ultimate closer, “Opus.” With its spoken-word sections, the album almost feels like declarative yet confused rambling dramatized by free-form experimentation that ranges from jazz to harsh noise.
BC,NR evolved from humble beginnings as a respected band on internet forums – with 216,039 monthly listeners on Spotify at the time of their debut – to a peak of 771,358 monthly listeners around a month after the release of their beloved second album Ants From Up There. AFUT builds on the chaos of its predecessor and adds atmospheric and slow-paced beauty, including some of the most unique yet emotionally satisfying songs of the era.
The songs are graciously woven together by motif and well-timed pacing, and while the true meaning of the lyrics is still mostly hidden (the band members themselves admitted in an interview with The Fader that former lead singer Isaac Wood writes lyrics no one in the band except him truly understands), the listener finds themselves giving their own personal meaning to things such as the Concorde airliner, the “clamp,” bread crumbs, and “boyfriend jeans,” to name a few.
While the music grew more personable — and potentially more approachable — the emotional vulnerability of Isaac Wood remained, illustrating the mental toll of being torn apart by a codependent relationship. While many musicians can sing about such topics, Isaac did so with so much sincerity that the pain of his experience came through with every word. From the fast-paced anthem “Chaos Space Marine” to the soft-spoken “Bread Song,” Isaac was able to make his fans tear up as he sang lyrics like “and no one had WiFi inside your apartment” with a cracked voice.
Music can serve not only as entertainment for the listener, but as an intense display of human emotion. Yet it is a privilege, not a right, to be privy to that emotion, to witness its performance on stage. Artists don’t owe their fans anything, which I soon found out when, while awaiting a BC,NR tour in early 2022, I heard an announcement from the band that Wood was to depart for mental health reasons and the upcoming tour was to be canceled. While many felt dejected, many more understood an important fact: that the mental health of a human being is far more important than their own experience with his music.
Many fans of BC,NR remember stories of singers from their parents’ generation with less fortunate endings. Ian Curtis, lead singer of post-punk late 70s/early 80s band Joy Division, similarly felt great pain and discomfort from the performance of his art, yet he lived in a time period in which addressing that pain and discomfort was far less accepted, and so his life was lost to suicide. As much as many fans desired to hear the masterpiece “Basketball Shoes” performed live one more time, it’s important that the music industry not repeat the story of Ian Curtis, but instead set the story of Isaac Wood as the new standard.
Black Country, New Road’s story, however, did not stop there. In merely five months, the remaining six members of this innovative band produced an entirely new setlist of eight tracks to perform for a cleverly named “Back in Black” tour (out of respect for Isaac, the band no longer plays songs from the first two studio albums). This new music was something else entirely: it used the vocals of many different members of the band to create a production that was still emotional — yet almost theatrical: retaining the same instrumentation and array of sounds present in their earlier albums, but also creating a more whimsical feel based around storytelling instead of the chaotic angst of Isaac’s lyricism.
While these new songs are live-only, the band released a beautifully-produced concert film Live From Bush Hall (and also made the songs available on Spotify) in which fan-contributed footage across multiple themed performances create a vivacious and unique experience. In their three Bush Hall shows, the members of the band dress up and hand out playbills explaining the mock theatrical stories behind each show: “When The Whistle Thins” (which had something to do with a farmer assembly), “I Ain’t Alfredo No Ghosts” (based around poltergeists and pizza restaurants), and “The Taming of the School” (where the band dressed up as if they were performing at an 1980s high school prom night).
In these unique Bush Hall shows and in all of their post-Isaac concerts, the remaining six members contribute in a way that is beautiful — not only musically, but also in a sense of understanding their relationship with one another. Their opening track to most of their shows, “Up Song,” features the unforgettable line “BC,NR, friends forever” and it is their friendship which keeps them going strong, bringing them across the US to perform at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland on August 27th, 2023, the night before the first day of classes at Reed.
On that night, it was their friendship that really stuck with me, and it’s that friendship I now hear in their music every time I listen to it, a comforting and powerful emotion to take with me while navigating the simultaneous academic and social uncertainties of starting college. In an interview with The Fader, drummer Charlie Wayne explains that “Our songs, fundamentally, are about us being together, in a room, making music.” It’s their chemistry as a group of friends that inspires and drives the art they make.
Such moments are especially visible in songs like the more recently written “24/7 365 British Summer Time,” (a song I got to hear for the first time live) in which the saxophonist Lewis Evans (who sings the track) uses the song to greet the crowd and introduce everyone in the band, allowing each member to solo their own individual talents while also staying with the beat of the song, showing both their individual talents as musicians and their beautiful harmony as a whole.
Following that track was a unique acoustic rendition of one of my favorite tracks of theirs, “I Won’t Always Love You,” which allowed bassist Tyler Hyde to show the full range of her talents as she kept a beautiful pacing for the rest of the band. Near the end of that track, we got to enjoy a wholesome moment as Charlie’s snare drum broke and he asked if he could borrow one from someone in their crew named Joel, who the crowd cheered on as Lewis reminded us how people like Joel “make it all possible.” Small moments like these are the beauty of live music, where the people behind the song come out and you truly get to feel the story and the humanity of the songs you love.
To close off the concert, BC,NR performed “Up Song (Reprise)”, a beautiful and innovative use of the musical motifs throughout their new setlist, which reminds the audience of the themes of growth and continuation through hardship by standing strong with those you care about. One could view this as a very personal statement from the band, considering their commitment to each other and their music despite of Isaac’s departure.
Music should be something that all of us get to find our own niche in, have those emotional moments, and find ourselves vulnerable to the voices and instruments of brilliant artists. Music should also be everywhere: it’s one of the most iconic and consistent elements across human culture wherever you listen. Yet the consequence of this is yearning to truly connect with this art that finds its way into nearly every part of our lives. I found that connection when I saw the talent of Black Country, New Road come to life, and thus my advice for the Reed student body is the same advice my high school AP Calculus teacher gives all of his students at the end of the year: “Go to every concert.”