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The Decline Of British Sea Power

Rock and roll has always offered its harbingers an array of delivery methods. Brighton's British Sea Power consistently opt for prickly juxtapositions: they like their club stages littered with stuffed birds and bits of foliage, and their rock songs peppered with obtuse allusions and highbrow polemics. And the tension doesn't end there: BSP might sport World War I military uniforms for their notoriously weird live sets, but The Decline of British Sea Power, the band's proper full-length debut, is deliberately contemporary, a confident synthesis of punk, post-punk, and new-wave, the perfect fusion of contrived aesthetics (if you're not convinced, check the band members' curt, one-word names-- Yan, Hamilton, Noble, Wood-- or the fact that they periodically pipe in pre-recorded woodland sounds during their shows) and gut-borne energy. Much like countrymen Clinic, the onstage gimmicks aren't intended to transcend the songs; rather, they comprise an equally compelling sideshow that seems, somehow, entirely appropriate to the music.

The Decline boasts lyrical references that range from semi-accessible ("Something Wicked" pulls expectedly from Macbeth) to the near-arcane (obscured nods to Russian literature, the British Empire, and imperialist ethics). Majestic and blustery, Decline's vaguely psychedelic goth-pop can, occasionally, also sway a bit little glam: Yan's cheeky self-comparisons to Liberace ("Just like Liberace/ I will return to haunt you with peculiar piano riffs") and Casio name-dropping ("I'll drink all day and play all night/ On my Casio electric piano") are purposefully campy, and his whisper-gone-yowl can be fiercely sexual, even predatory. BSP repeatedly get swatted with overwrought comparisons to both Joy Division and the Pixies, but The Decline has a lot more "Stardust"-era Bowie buried in it than anyone seems ready to admit.

The sinister and lusty "Apologies to Insect Life" sees Yan layering his brash, punkish wheezes (check the hiccuped, barely pronounced shouts of "Yeah!") over Noble's harried guitar riffing, hollering an introductory, "Oh Fyodor, you are the most attractive man/ Oh Fyodor, you are the most attractive man I know." Presumably, it's all one big, freaky homage to Dostoyevsky (and no less ambiguous than one of the man's novels); what makes "Apologies" so intensely interesting is that it pits its super-cerebral strutting against straightforward, power-to-the-people punk beats.

Album opener "Men Together Today" is a sustained choral swell that lasts about a minute and a half-- hauntingly resonant, "Men" is also almost painfully misplaced, essentially irrelevant to what follows, a freestanding climax denied a proper build. Alternately, the sprawling epic "Lately" (which rolls on for nearly 14 minutes) packs in a few too many rises and collapses, shimmering on and on, a series of spectacular movements that never properly assemble into a cohesive (or coherent) whole. The album's true apex is "Fear of Drowning", which begins, appropriately, with the muted whoosh of water crashing into shore. Don't get too serene, though: what comes next is Yan cooing "Jesus fucking Christ/ Oh, God, no" over a whole mess of thick, wailing guitar. Wood's drums are the only thing staying consistent; vocals and guitars roll in and out, turbulent and jarring, a thrilling spin.

Some people are already gearing up to dismiss British Sea Power as uselessly derivative, prematurely rejecting the band as (yet another) batch of self-obsessed, post-post-punk wannabes wearing stupid outfits, a troop of hyper Echo & The Bunnymen fans who spend far too much time prancing about, and not nearly enough time defining a sound of their own. But BSP's performance art antics and throwback posturing come with a distinct set of innovations and surprises, and The Decline of British Sea Power proves that BSP have the song-power to back up their bullshit. More than just a cheeky album title or bizarre live spectacle, British Sea Power can also stir up a perfectly chilling wave.


Author: Amanda Petrusich
Source: Pitchfork
Date: 2nd June 2003

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