After a long hiatus, the big-tent UK pop band returns with a joyful but middling album that’s a little bit of everything they’ve always been.
Ask 10 people to describe the sound of Bombay Bicycle Club you’ll probably get 10 different answers; it all depends when they got into them. Perhaps you thrashed along to Bombay Bicycle Club’s post-punk jams at the pub in 2009, when they released their debut I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose; or maybe you were more into the stark genre-flip of their 2010 follow-up, Flaws, which was more freakish whisper-folk. If you got into them around 2012-2014, you’d have heard more expansive ideas, and a rush of electronic lifeblood—particularly on their best record to date, 2014’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Throughout their career, the UK band shifted from one identity to the next, and when they hit their peak, they announced they were going to take an indefinite hiatus.
But as hiatuses in music are wont to do, it didn’t last very long. The band reconvened in 2018 to discuss playing some celebratory shows for the 10th anniversary of their debut album. But doing a reunion tour without new music didn’t feel right. The result is Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, a brightly hued record that combines frontman Jack Steadman’s crate-digging and synth-noodling with guitar-driven hooks. With its full-chested choruses, it’s a record that—like the eerie video for the title track in which his bandmates literally dig Steadman out of a grave—seems to cheer: “We’re not dead yet! We’re not dead yet!”
The palpable joy of Everything Else indicates that the hiatus was healthy for the band. It was a decision that was born of the fact that, having found success while still at school, the four-piece has never known any other career, and were getting complacent. This is a playful record, from the swooning brass that opens the album on “Get Up” to the squiggly synth-flute sample on the shuffling “Do You Feel Loved?” Its propulsive rhythms often feel perfectly engineered for sunset slots at summer festivals. As the hook of “Is It Real” swells into a call-and-response chant, it’s easy to imagine muddy feet having fun with its frantic rhythm in a Glastonbury field. As they did on So Long, the band take great delight in disappearing down into rabbit holes of sound, as with “Let You Go,” which crescendoes in a flurry of chopped vocals, guitars, and synths.
While the sound is more swaggering and unashamedly stadium-sized, Bombay Bicycle Club’s lyrics remain decidedly introverted. Steadman will sing of obsessively thinking of someone while listening to music on headphones or not being able to speak due to shyness. In the album announcement, the band indicated that this would be an album of “music in a time of crisis” and “finding kernels of hope and renewal in dire situations.” However, these strongly worded descriptions belie the fact that Steadman’s lyrics largely seem to deal with internal mutterings and a kind of personal, low-level malaise. On the muted, downbeat “Good Day,” he briefly touches on “the melting ice caps in my drink” but tosses it aside to dwell on aging, the loss of friends, and the listless refrain: “I just want to have a good day/And it’s only me that’s standing in my way”.
To what extent has it become fashionable to frame music in the context of generalized “crisis”? Many of these songs don’t sound specific to 2020 in any sense other than that the Bombay Bicycle Club that made them as a grown, arena-filling version of itself. Their greatest triumph is the title track—a song that, it could be argued, adheres most closely to their theme of hope in a crisis, thanks to the hand-clap-driven, lackadaisical hook that’s an absolute joy to sing along to: “Keep the stereo on/Everything else has gone wrong.” With a synth melody that blooms red like a siren, the song builds to a fantastically proggy conclusion.
But the song, which climaxes with Steadman crying out that he’s “found [his] second wind”, is ultimately about writer’s block. This is what holds Bombay Bicycle Club’s latest iteration back: a tendency for the self-referential. On “Is It Real,” they deal in nostalgia, singing about watching old tape reels, while musically weaving together strands of their different sounds through the ages: skittering drums, sweet-voiced indie singalongs, and a psychedelic break. It’s masterfully handled, but ultimately, not a “kernel of hope or renewal in a dire situation.” On Everything Else, the band reminds us why it is that they’re still so beloved after 10 years in the game (those earworm melodies are unshakeable!) but they also cling to their upper-tier festival billing without ever truly being controversial or pushing boundaries. This is the sound of an ever-curious, shape-shifting band finally finding the confidence to tell us who they really are. But they are not telling us anything we didn’t already know.