Reinvented, reinvigorated

The first minute and 35 seconds of Bombay Bicycle Club’s fourth album, So Long, See You Tomorrow, features zero guitars. “So what?” you might ask. Indeed, there are plenty of albums whose first 1:35 features no guitar. But it’s worth noting here because the first 1:27 of Bombay Bicycle Club’s (BBC) 2009 debut features nothing but guitars. Through its early years, BBC was a guitar band, and a fairly competent one at that. But it wasn’t just a guitar band; it was every guitar band to venture across the pond with axes held chest-high and eager, young, very pale hearts on their sleeves. They managed to sound like U2 and the Clash and Foals and Coldplay and Bloc Party all at the same time without ever actually sounding like any of them. The truth is that BBC’s music was so effortless to listen to and apparently to make that you couldn’t help but think it derivative or artificial in some way, even if you couldn’t pin down exactly how. Still, the London foursome didn’t get much credit (at least in the States) for churning out pleasant, consistent guitar rock that translated almost verbatim live. And the least inspiring origin story ever—three well-off white kids and a well-off Indian kid, all the sons of professional musicians, who named their band after an Indian takeout restaurant—did little to dispel their image as predictable and unimaginative.

Perhaps that perception got under the band’s skin, or perhaps they grew tired of sounding like a pasty British rock band par excellence. In any case, So Long, See You Tomorrow completes the transformation begun on 2011’s ornate A Different Kind of Fix, betraying almost no trace of the fuzzed-out, angled riffs that defined the first half of BBC’s career. Replacing it are waves of loops and synths, sparkling production and intricate arrangements that, at their best, retain BBC’s ear for hooks and propulsive songwriting while sounding unlike anything they’ve ever done. The band has tried to transform itself in the past, venturing from rock into folk and then back again, without ever conquering the middle tiers of festival lineups or critics’ evaluations. And while layering on gloss and having pretty women with pretty voices sing your choruses aren’t exactly novel ways to expand your audience, they’re executed here with enough skill that this new iteration of BBC might just catch on.

The first thing you notice isn’t the lack of guitars, but the wall of sound that’s replaced them. Clarinets, mandolins, saxophones, strings: it’s an instrument party. BBC doesn’t sound like a band anymore; few if any tracks are driven by a drumbeat. But despite winking at the listener with an opening track called “Overdone,” the album presents a coherent whole. Credit goes to front man Jack Steadman, who wrote, arranged, and co-produced the album; in fact, So Long is more arranged than composed, focused on the stacking of components rather than their forward motion, and it’s Steadman’s touch that keeps towers of noise like the title track and “Home By Now” from crumbling. “Luna,” a highlight, combines panpipes with percussive loops before exploding into the kind of shiver-inducing chorus that you know BBC have longed to write since day one. Steadman, who travelled in Africa and Asia between albums, has his obligate Beatles moment on the Indian-flute-inflected “Feel,” while “Come To” combines Rae Morris’s floating vocals with a wavering synthesizer and a shimmering guitar tone borrowed from shoegazers Slowdive, yet another pale English band whose sound BBC now have under their belt. Perhaps the most striking sonic departure is “Carry Me,” which, with it’s dub-infused verse and snapping snare rolls, is by a fair margin the closest to danceable that BBC has ever sounded.

At first listen, sounds like these have almost nothing to do with the group’s earlier music. A Different Kind of Fix was a step in this new direction; So Long is a quantum leap. But if Steadman is working with new tools this time around, he’s using them in familiar ways. BBC’s traditional calling cards are hard to spot, but they’re present nonetheless: interlocking melodies, easy chords, unremarkable but unoffensive lyrics. When they fuse with his new sonic options on album highlight “Home By Now,” the result is breathtaking.

Not that the album is devoid of growing pains. Steadman’s instincts serve him well, but the effortless ease with which BBC glided through its earlier, simpler material is basically gone. You can imagine them in the studio, twirling knobs on their controllers and other fancy machines, asking each other, “What if we tried this?” Sometimes, these experiments succeed; the choppy, video-game piano on “Home By Now” proves as much. But songs that wander too far sag under their own weight. As a guitar band, BBC generated huge amounts of propulsion. Their guitar lines, if not adventurous, at least never got stale or suffocating. That’s a risk on an album as dense as So Long, and the weakest moments are those that find Steadman and co. too eager to discard the guitar-fueled energy that got them where they are. When BBC forget that they are in fact a band rather than the DJ setup in their lead singer’s basement, the results are listless and overwrought.

The fact of the matter is that even if BBC’s best moments on So Long acknowledge its strengths as a rock band, BBC no longer sounds like one. Instead, they prove to those who dismissed them for not having their own sound that there was always more to them than met the ear. In the grand scheme of production-driven sonic reinventions, it’s no Achtung Baby, but that’s an unfair comparison; it took a band as great as U2 to switch gears so totally and so triumphantly. But just like that U2 classic, So Long, See You Tomorrow is a demonstration of staying power. Bombay Bicycle Club has (mostly) successfully abandoned the archetypal sound that most assumed they were married to. They’ve outlasted themselves, and in more ways than one: the restaurant for which they are named folded a few years ago.

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