Bloom have an interesting origin of sorts. Although this is their début album they’re not exactly a new band. Rather like New Order became Joy Division, Bloom are the Phoenix that has risen from the flames of an old Brighton group called The Beautiful Word, who had been kicking around making folky pop on these shores for quite some time. Thankfully the tragedy that prompted this reboot is not quite so solemn as the suicide of Ian Curtis which made the remaining members of Joy Division decide to start over with a new identity. Still, I can imagine it must have been quite horrifying for Megan, one of the bands dual harmony singers, when she developed nodules on her throat and had to stop singing altogether for a while. So it was an enforced break from music that forced the band to take pause and incubate this new version of themselves. What’s apparent from the get-go on this collection of ten songs is the level of focus and clarity to the bands renewed musical vision.
I had seen their previous incarnation live a number of times on the local gig circuit. Although there were lots of aspects to the sound that I could get behind I always felt like there was a slight mismatch between the two singing girls up front, best friends Emily and Megan, with their folky art-pop sensibilities, and the trio of guys at the back, who would bring a level of technical skill that at times felt unnecessary for the material. Those sorts of complaints are completely absent from What Is Life?, which comes across as the work of a sophisticated, cohesive band with a clearly defined sound. They’ve shed a lot of the folky finger-picking stuff in favour of a more slick synth pop flavour. There were times I might have found their earlier work a little too soppy and saccharine, but while the melodies are as sunny and the harmonies as frequent, there is a melancholy that hangs over these songs. There’s a sense of longing, reaching, hoping and emerging.
The album begins with ‘Such A Shame’ establishing the sound of the record, a solid, funky, super-tight groove held down by the rhythm section while clean, jangly delayed guitars and shiny synths sparkle on top. The tension of the verses gives way to a killer, hooky chorus. It’s an approach the band use throughout the album – managing to find catchy melodies to crown their tracks time and time again. ‘Shout’ was the first song to be made public as a teaser for the album, it could almost be referring directly to Megan’s struggle with losing her voice, or rather the joy of rediscovering it: “never knew that I could shout before always bite my tongue/now I know what all the fuss is for, show me how it’s done“. There’s a feeling of triumph over adversity, but it’s marked by the struggle to get there, as the intimate stripped back verses give way to driving choruses by way of a distorted synth bass tone.
‘Not Enough’ has a classy broken groove to the verses, with clever guitar harmonies and a housey groove. ‘Try’ takes things down a notch, leading with a picked guitar and off-beat ambience before striking up a slow-burning groove that builds with counter-point vocal melodies and laid-back guitars. ‘Nothing’ is a real strong track, the synth-organ playing hooks that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Vampire Weekend album. The verse melody has real ear-worm potential, almost more so than the chorus, and it gets plenty of room to shine. Particularly in the extended break-down for the second verse, one of many places where the bands skill for vocal arrangement shines through, giving this one a bit of School Of Seven Bells feel.
Probably the oddest groove on the record comes with ‘Snow’, which sounds like Japanese computer game music in places, its verses doing odd things with all the black notes on the keyboard. The chorus is a build-up that returns us to the unusual verse groove, which stretches and adds more tension when it repeats. ‘Something’ is another hook-fest, vocal melodies and infectious synth licks are all over the shop – perhaps it’s a sister track to ‘Nothing’. This one could easily be a single, possessing a sort of epic-pop chorus that rises pleasingly out of the soft pop verses. They take this one for bit of a ride too, taking the opportunity to play it out with a largely instrumental outro, marked by the occasional vocal line, drenched in faraway reverb.
‘Tiny’ is a bit of a ballad, and a rare occasion where the lead vocal is largely left to a single voice – appropriate when the lyrics is about feeling small and forgotten. This is probably the closest they get on the album to a folk number, melodically and with the prominence of the acoustic guitar. It builds beautifully though, with a stand-out bit of vocal performance in the bridge, and some bass guitar that sounds like it could be influenced by the amazing playing on Paul Simon’s Graceland. There’s something about the crescendo that’s a bit Ben Folds 5 too, but only in as much as it’s a well crafted bit of song-writing.
As the album draws to a close we get ‘Focus’, which has a fantastic verse full of slightly unusual chord choices and fancy backing vocal hooks. It’s another chorus that works as a building section, which is quite a good technique that works very well for them, building tension before releasing it all in the instrumental sections that follow. The album ends on it’s most epic track, ‘Letting Go’ is mellow and melancholic, stretching out to 5 minutes it’s unusually long on an album that breezes by with a 36 minute total running time. The funky chorus on this one is a real treat, and there’s a synth hook that’s a nod to some early retro synth pioneer that I shamefully can’t pinpoint, but it’s a really clever use of a classic motif, not that they needed it to make this track a real gem and a great opportunity for their able drummer to stretch his limbs, rolling effortlessly around the kit throughout the track, without sounding like he’s over egging the pudding.
The band talk about their work taking a DIY approach with this album, raising the funds to produce it through kick-starter, working on near zero budget music videos, calling in favours from an extended family of old contacts established in The Beautiful Word days to organise a UK tour on a shoe-string. In that context you might expect the music to be a little rough-and-ready, a little bit of charming shonkiness would not be a surprise, but that’s not what we get. Instead everything has been painstakingly arranged and performed, the production kept to a high standard throughout. So What Is Life? is a fine collection of songs from a group who have re-emerged stronger with a clearer sense of self. Here’s hoping they get the accolades they deserve for all this hard work, there’s so much potential on this record I’d love to see their own brand of cosmic pop ascending to the stratosphere where it belongs.