(Belly Up Records)
Perhaps more than any other Irish band of the last decade, BellX1 have managed to walk the tightrope between commercial success and critical acclaim. That fact alone is surprising. Their brand of, for want of a better word, art-pop would normally be anathema to this country’s uber-conservative radio programmers (apart from the obvious music fans who dictate their own playlists), but their unerring ability to weld thoughtful, intelligent lyrics to toe-tappingly catchy hooks and melodies has ensured that at least some of our airwaves are free of anodyne, saccharine-soaked sentiment. With their fourth album, Blue Lights On The Runway, they have added some electronic bells and whistles into the mix, and yet the beating heart of their music remains unerringly human.
Album opener, -The Ribs Of A Broken Umbrella’ kicks in with a metronomic drum-beat, before some gorgeous -la-la-la’ backing vocals underpin what is essentially a tale of unrequited love, but this is no tear-jerker. Instead, it’s a wonderfully upbeat, almost giddy pop song, driven by a frenetic energy and a melody so infectious, it could come with its own vaccination.
-How Your Heart’, premiered at last year’s Oxegen festival, encapsulates the band’s newfound love of all things electronic: staccato beats and digital whirs and bleeps form the bedrock, but Paul Noonan’s lyrics and sweet delivery ensure the structure is constructed from warm, fuzzy soul.
Lead single, -The Great Defector’ is disarmingly catchy, showcasing Noonan’s unique lyric-writing style, switching from raw emotion to tongue-in-cheek pop culture reference in the course of the same verse, veering from the unflagging rise of corporate culture (‘The accountants have taken the movies/ Yeah, they’re all set/ And the people from the mobile phone company/ Say who gets to play and who gets to not’) to the minutiae of love (‘You’re the chocolate at the end of my Cornetto’).
The singer’s ability to subtly capture the essence of his message in one memorable line is as sharp as ever. Indeed, nowhere is Noonan’s strengthening craft more apparent than the album’s penultimate, -One Stringed Harp’, a one-man tirade against the stranglehold of political correctness and the power of the media. In other hands, this could descend into the realms of the comedy song (and it is frequently hilarious), but there’s a serious rant to be made, and one worth listening to, but we’re not going to spoil the surprise.
Elsewhere, there’s the delicate beauty of -Light Catches Your Face’, the haunting -Blow Ins’ and the fantastical -Amelia’, as Noonan imagines the last journey of female aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared over the Pacific on the final leg of a round-the-world flight in 1937. Meanwhile, album closer, -The Curtains Are Twitching’ is one of the finest songs BellX1 have given us over the course of their four albums: essentially a piano-ballad, it features Noonan’s most naked vocal performance yet (he almost seems to be whispering in your ear), augmented by a deliciously dishevelled New Orleans brass band.
Themes range from transience (-Blow Ins’) to an ironic nudge at the trials and tribulations of making music (-A Better Band’, complete with prog rock wig-out), from love to, eh, underwear, with underwire bras and thong-style knickers making guest appearances throughout.
One of the signs that an album is truly great, as opposed to just good, is when your favourite song changes all the time. While we’ve only lived with Blue Lights.. for a couple of weeks, State’s allegiances have already switched several times, depending on our mood. The good news is that this is an argument that’s set to run and run, as BellX1 have delivered arguably their most fully rounded album to date.