Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Baby 81

When Black Rebel Motorcycle Club last graced our shelves with Howl in 2005, they probably lost as many fans as they gained. For a band best known for heavy guitar riffs and dense basslines backed by rolling drums, their departure to the world of roots-rock was bizarre; where once thrashing distorted guitars ruled, now there was a harmonica and steel guitar. For those with a complete love of rock, all the way back to its deep US heartland roots, it was a refreshing break from one of the most potential-laden American outfits going. The hard rock fans, however, waited for rather more modern inspiration to return to the band. The return of drummer Nick Jago, after his absence during the creation of Howl, did enough to bring the band back to their trademark sound and produced the thematically heavy Baby 81.

Baby 81 is decidedly difficult to discuss without a study of the elements that went into its creation. After their phenomenal self-titled debut, the band headed down the path of least resistance and cranked out 2003’s Take Them On, On Your Own; an album crammed with angst and a real feeling of self-destruction. It was too much, too hard, too heavy and turned out to be a dead end. A substance abuse problem drove Jago out, leaving Robert Levon Been (bass) and Peter Hayes (guitar) stuck in the wrong direction. To their credit, the two pulled a Kid A and brought the band out of the formulaic mire. Howl was penance – a tribute to the origins of their craft and a rediscovery of their capacity for great music. As the Howl recordings were drawing to a close, Jago returned and the band was reformed with a bank of experience few contemporaries could claim to match. It was in this moment that Baby 81 was born.

The album storms out of the blocks with Been’s bluesy retrospect, “I took out a loan on my empty heart babe/Took out a loan for my patient soul”. The slow, angry guitar waits for the drums and bass to come to the party before ripping up a solo without breaking out of the slow pacing. It’s the freight train sound of real rock & roll that the band discovered on Howl’s Ain’t No Easy Way and it gets just enough play here to not be contrived. Following up, Berlin chants, “Suicide’s easy/What happened to the revolution?” with a slicker paced beat that cries out for some dancing. It’s a glorious return to form here that sets up the radio-friendly rock-out that is Weapon of Choice. The vocals are pushed back while the guitars run free – it’s a crime to listen to it on anything but a brilliant stereo, cranked loud with plenty of air guitar accompaniment.

Window is about as Beatles as BRMC have been, right down to some twee lyrical choices: “How’s it going to feel/When you don’t know what’s real?” It’s a forgivable lapse given that what follows seems straight out of their debut; Cold Wind rocks out on hazy guitar fuzz and echoing vocals, encapsulating BRMC cool in four husky minutes. The brilliantly edgy 666 Conducer feels wonderfully dirty in comparison to the two songs either side of it. It’s a deep, bluesy and phenomenally catchy song with more atmosphere than a David Lynch film. That said, it is pressed between the two poppiest tracks in Not What You Wanted and All You Do is Talk, the latter of which rolls out the effects in a shamelessly over-produced attempt at the sort of sound Evermore butter their bread with. The line, “You’re lucky words don’t bleed” seems a direct stab at the grotesque ‘speechifying’ Americans have to tolerate from their politicians, but then this is hardly an anthem. Lucky it sounds fantastic.

Lien On Your Dreams is forgettable and lost in its repetitious sound that doesn’t quite get broken at the chorus thanks to its endless stream of aimless lyrics and a title that doesn’t quite fit. Need Some Air is the best sounding track on the album from the get-go, the quickfire drumming giving urgency to this ode to drowning (“You feel alive but you’re sinking fast/Just close your eyes this won’t be your last”).

Killing the Light is a glorious falsetto sing-along; the sort of thing Daniel Johns should be doing but inexplicably isn’t. What follows is pure archaic indulgence in the form of American X, its chorus an absolute highlight. Finding it in the nine minutes worth of music, about six of which is spent trying to smoke as many cigarettes as possible while occasionally hinting at a guitar solo, is a real task. When they do strike it, your eyes get lost in the middle distance and the hair on your neck stands up; “Your open arms, they only seem to surrender all that matters”. It’s phenomenal. Finally, Baby 81 wraps up with Hayes crooning “Am I only/only one of you?” over sedated acoustic guitar which gradually breaks out into an epic ballad, closing the album with that big hint at better things to come.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have found themselves on Baby 81. It’s their strongest album since their debut effort and holds a lot of promise for the future.