“For the first time” is a wonderfully put together album that expertly explores its many themes with masterful precision and wild energy.
By Ryan McLaughlin
Gavin reached out to me to write a review for this record some time ago due to my interest in this band. The band has gotten plenty of traction and attention within online post-punk and math rock circles, and in 2019 I quickly became interested in them after falling in love with their EP “Sunglasses” and their song “Athens, France.”
For almost two years with only those two songs, I would often tout Black Country, New Road as my favorite new band to everyone and anyone unfortunate enough to be listening. Despite this, I could never fully pinpoint why I had become so fascinated by their music. With the release of their debut album, “For the first time,” I believe I’ve gained a better understanding of my infatuation with this band.
I have never written a review before, so I won’t attempt to approach this album in a traditional rundown and evaluation of its merits, instead, I will share my understanding and appreciation for this record in the hopes that it will either encourage you to listen to it yourself or to gain a new perspective on it.
With only six tracks, Black Country, New Road has created a profoundly fascinating record that explores themes that are at once deeply personal to the band’s frontman Isaac Wood, and also relevant to the majority of young adults maturing in an age of isolation and confusion.
The album begins with an instrumental introduction that quickly establishes a foreboding and tumultuous atmosphere. Its steady build to an overwhelming instrumentation is the perfect introduction for the listener to acclimate themselves with Black Country, New Road’s plodding and unique style. It is an excellent hook that not only perfectly functions within its placement in the album, but also is fully capable of standing on its own.
The introduction then gives way to an altered version of “Athens, France.” Many fans are disappointed with the changes to this song, but I believe the new version works better within the framework of the record. The original version of “Athens, France” told a story of the singer’s failing and mediocre relationship with a younger rich French girl, which fuels his insecurity that stems from his sexual inadequacy.
He attempts to blame his partner’s youth, taste in music, her sexual liberation and her family’s wealth for his shortcomings. However, no explanation eases his distress, as the turbulent instrumentation further highlights his unhealthy self-perception and relationship. As effective as this may be, the album version takes the original and builds upon it, adding a more mature and sentimental perspective, culminating in a beautiful outro that fully recontextualizes the song into something more complex than the whinings of a sexually frustrated 20 something.
That, as well as several lyrical omissions, such as lines mocking the girl’s interest in pop culture, are replaced with more introspective verses focused on his development. The two versions function very well when viewed side-by-side and show an appreciated growth for the band. While I believe the album version feels less adolescent and unfocused in its aimless angst, the original still holds its merit.
The LP then takes a turn into the darker and more story-driven third song, “Science Fair.” The track is genuinely foreboding. It is an intense exploration of an isolated and confused man who is traumatized by an embarrassing incident from his past. This event has damaged his ability to connect with the world around him, as he further immerses himself into an increasingly lonely world.
The singer then describes a moment of perceived intimacy as he watches a woman undress on a stage, only to realize that he is merely a member of a crowd, which leads him to run from the situation as the song reaches an intense and horrifying crescendo. This track explores perhaps the darkest themes of the album. One of the more interesting ones is the attempt to escape from self-created isolation via parasocial relationships.
In a more meta verse, the singer also expresses his concern that his art is just a knock of others, referring to himself as “the second-best Slint tribute act” which refers to the band Slint, who is also known for creating narratively driven songs. This song expertly blurs the line between storytelling and reality by creating an atmosphere that culminates in an outstanding climax. It is an escalation from “Athens, France,” that wonderfully builds into the fourth song on the album, “Sunglasses.”
Much like “Athens, France,” the band decided to alter many aspects of its fourth song. However, unlike the changes made to “Athens, France,” I can’t help but feel like the band took an unfortunate step back with this version. The only alteration that I think was to the song’s benefit was a beautifully atmospheric guitar-based intro, that serves as an excellent lead-in.
“Sunglasses” explores the singer’s discomfort with his mediocrity as he views himself falling into a mundane and routine life. He attempts to rid himself of this anxiety by wearing sunglasses to project confidence and hide his fear. However, his façade quickly falls apart as he returns to his destructive self-perception while he grapples with his insecurities.
Near the end of the song, the singer makes a desperate plea to the world to view him as “more than adequate,” which purposefully comes off as futile and childish. This song is the highpoint of the album and feels perfectly built up to. As much as I appreciate the first half of the record, “Sunglasses” is so well crafted and thrilling, that it is the standout track. As I have mentioned before though, I don’t believe this to be the best version of the song.
Much like “Athens, France,” the band chose to move away from direct references to the singer’s sexual anxieties that were present in the original. While the album version of “Athens, France” took this shift into a new and more well-rounded direction, I believe that the changes made here only weaken the song.
The removal of the line “fuck me like you mean it” truly diminishes the impact that the last portion of the song held. The line gave a fresh dimension to the singer’s insecurities and inadequacies, and the new version just lacks the same impact that the original had. While I don’t think this will be an issue for new listeners, the removal of that line as well as a few changes in the delivery of several key vocal segments, and minor changes to the instrumentation of the song, makes this version a bit disappointing for me.
The fifth track of the record, titled “Track X,” is a beautiful change of pace from the insanity that came before it, serving as a counterpoint to the anger and insecurity that drove the prior songs. The track explores the aftermath of a romantic relationship, as the singer fluctuates from sorrow, anger and finally to acceptance with the incredibly simple yet impactful line “and I guess in some way.”
“Track X” is a mature and touching song about loss and maturity, that embraces the many ambiguities that emerge from ended relationships. It is expertly placed on the tracklist to elicit the biggest impact for the listeners. The song is filled with regret and nostalgia, creating a stunning work of art that contains one of the most restrained and elegant instrumentals on the entire album. Equally heartbreaking and beautiful, it only grows more impactful with each listen.
“Opus” serves as the perfect conclusion for such a complex and introspective project. While its thematic exploration may be a bit simpler than the prior tracks, that doesn’t limit its impact. The instrumental has a manic quality to it as it ebbs and flows between being slow and contemplative to some of the wildest and most thrilling instrumentation of the entire record.
Thematically, the song explores the discomforts of growing out of adolescence and maturing into adulthood, as the singer believes he’s already missed too much or doesn’t have a good enough understanding of the world around him. Again, we hear the phrase “black country,” which much like in “Science Fair,” seems to represent the horrifying openness and ambiguity of the world around him.
In the song, the protagonist speaks of attempting to build a road or claim some land within the darkness by using another person as a catalyst. But the conclusion that this protagonist reaches is that it wasn’t enough, and now he feels unprepared and overwhelmed, as everyone else around him seems to be ahead beyond his point of development. This serves as a good explanation for what the band’s name means. It is a powerful track that manages to stand out on an album where every song stands out in its own right.
“For the first time” is a wonderfully put together album that expertly explores its many themes with masterful precision and wild energy. Though it may not be a concept album, it reminds me a lot of a modern-day The Who’s, “Quadrophenia,” due to its excellent ability to tap into the anxieties and what it means to come of age in our era. It is a brilliant album that demands multiple listens, and I am incredibly excited to see what this band will produce in the future.
Favorite Tracks: ALL