To celebrate the release of their much-anticipated debut album For the first time, Black Country, New Road announced a live Twitch stream. Those who logged in were treated to an hour or two of the band taking it in turns to make deliveries from Cambridge to Dover in Euro Truck Simulator 2. As they crashed, failed to park and sped down the M11, fans watched and listened carefully to every word spoken, rabidly analysing any comment that emerged. You see, Black Country, New Road have the sort of fanbase that eagerly anticipate everything they do, no matter how mundane. The relative normality that they project as individuals seems to sit in stark contrast to the complex, jagged music that they make. Having emerged, it feels, more or less from nowhere, there appeared to be surrounding them a heavy mystique, only increased by the opaque poetry of singer Isaac Wood that coalesced with the experimental sound of their music. It might have felt almost impossible to escape the build up to the release of For the first time, which has landed to critical acclaim – and rightly so, for it is a highly accomplished debut record, though you would expect it to be given the work that has gone into perfecting the six songs in the live setting over the last few years.
YouTube has slowly become an archive that few bands can escape. Play a half idea in the live setting and likely it will end up recorded for posterity. Fans will latch on to moments that once would have ceased to exist as soon as they’d appeared. Traded on Facebook groups, they’ll become definitive versions, even if it is still the sound of a band finding their feet. Black Country, New Road have undoubtedly become victims of the permanence of online videos, exacerbated also by the choice to record two of the tracks from For the first time in earlier studio versions. In the hours after the release of the album, fans descended into a powerful war of words about which versions of ‘Athens, France‘ and ‘Sunglasses’ were superior. Conversations ranged from sonic choices, to lyrical revisions, to production and placing. Some wondered what had happened to ‘Kendall Jenner’, ‘Basketball Shoes’ and ‘Algorithm’. There were those that seemed genuinely hurt, as though all the love and attention they’d invested into the original versions of songs had been torn away by the decision to re-record them. As music listeners, we can’t help but grow severe attachments to moments in song. They become, for us, a reflection of a time and place, of a memory, of a lover, of a bereavement. Songs feel as though they speak to us personally and any attempt to reimagine or recreate can seem to be an implication that those previous versions were lacking. Little consideration is given to the intentions of the artists – no matter how painful it may be now to recount the tales told.
For the first time is without doubt an exceptional album but one that is impossible to listen to without context worming its wicked way in. How can you listen to the softened guitars on ‘Athens, France’ without missing the harsher tone on the original? It’s for this very reason why the previously unreleased tracks – ‘Instrumental’, ‘Science Fair’, ‘Track X’ and ‘Opus’ – are just that much more enjoyable, it seems, for the majority of listeners who have been following the band for some time. They come without any prior experience, save for the live setting. These are ‘brand new’ as it were and as such can be listened to without comparison. ‘Instrumental’ has been a striking live-opener for some time, and introduces the record in a frenzy of klezmer-inspired sound. ‘Science Fair’ is similarly chaotic with Lewis Evans’ saxophone given particular prominence as it machine-guns its way up the scales. ‘Track X’ softens the record, providing a respite from the chaos, with Wood channelling the nonchalant delivery of Dean Blunt. Here, the intertextuality of the Windmill scene emerges most explicitly, with references to ‘Jerskin‘ and ‘Black Midi‘ littered amongst lines about ‘Jack’, ‘Mollie’, Wood’s ‘Mum’ and his dog ‘Dylan’. Finally, the record closes with the frankly spectacular ‘Opus’, a song laden with riffs, in the good ol’ sense of the word.
It’s interesting to consider the backlash in certain corners of the internet. Usually, the emergence of a re-recording or an update to a song is met with curiosity. Think of the Radiohead fans who for years wore ragged their versions of ‘True Love Waits‘ on bootlegged or CDR-ripped copies of the I Might Be Wrong EP, only to burst into a joyous frenzy when they discovered it was closing out A Moon Shaped Pool, with freshly recorded keyboards. Perhaps that song had been given the benefit of time, so that fans were actually clamouring for a better recording when it was released. Given the short space of time between Black Country, New Road releasing singles and then re-recording them, perhaps the appetite had not quite been built up.
If you’ve never listened to Black Country, New Road, and this is your first exposure to them, then likely none of this will be at all apparent. You’ll listen to the six songs and likely be impressed at the lyricism, the music, the experimentation. You’ll have no idea about everything that came before this Ninja Tune release and you’ll approach it with fresh ears. You won’t be sat in the corner of your bedroom, feverishly typing away on your laptop as you struggle to understand why someone might not want to sing about their sexual trauma anymore. You’re likely to be the type of music listener who’ll take the most from this album. If you’re a long-time fan, then of course you’re always going to wish they were still ‘your little band’. It’s a tale as old as time. One minute you’re watching Bring Me The Horizon at The Garage playing Face The Fest, the next they’re Radio 1 mainstays making orchestral metal for blokes in finance who love ‘rock’. Because Black Country, New Road have the kind of fans who will watch them play Euro Truck Simulator 2 for hours at a time, they’re always going to attract the kind of fan who wants to keep them for themselves. Unfortunately for them, with the amount of talent on display on For the first time, they’ll have to make do with the memories and the occasional YouTube deep dive to recapture the moment when they felt like the band was only theirs.
For the first time is out now on Ninja Tune. Order on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital download here.