On the cover Bloc Party lead singer Kele Okereke’s first solo release, The Boxer, he’s sitting down, looking at the ground between his legs, the black and white coloring masking his face almost entirely. Four years later, we see much more of Okereke’s face on 2014’s Trick, though his full body is still obscured in the shadow of the stark red background, a striking illustration of the record’s darker and more sinister tones.
But on Fatherland, the British indie rock hero trades in his synthesizers and DJ equipment for an acoustic guitar, finally feeling happy in his own skin, now comfortable releasing an album under his full name Kele Okereke. The corresponding album art, filled with bright greens and yellows, depicts his face, unobscured by any shadows or lighting, save for a few leaves.
This is Kele Okereke without any sort of filter, with no muddied production, urgent drumbeats, or guitar effects. Fatherland represents a confessional and straightforward Okereke, finally telling his story on his own terms with little else separating his voice and acoustic guitar from his audience, with the exception of a few horns.
The end result is a very naked and exposed Okereke, one that we haven’t seen before. Now that every bit of excess has been largely stripped away, does it live up to his past acoustic highlights, like this classic Bloc Party Take Away Show where he and guitarist Russell Lissack perform a delicate take of “This Modern Love” on the street outside a Parisian pub?
Well, not really.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes in Fatherland—Okereke writes about simultaneously experiencing parenthood as a gay man while reconnecting with his Nigerian heritage and his own father. Weighty subjects for sure; the Bloc Party frontman tackles them head on, but with very little attempt at subtlety, routinely falling into clichés (“by now you should have known that all that glitters is not gold,” “I bet you say I was to blame / Do you think I’m blind or just playin’,” “You spent all my money, honey,” “What could I say to have made you stay?” and so forth).
The worst of which comes on “Savannah,” the most personal song Okereke’s written to date. Dedicated to his newborn daughter of the same name, he sings a song full of advice for her over a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Lumineers-esque handclap percussion that Father John Misty parodied so viciously in “Prius Commercial 1; “If there’s one lesson this life has taught me / Open your heart be kind / And let love flow through your soul,” he coos as background hums crescendo behind him, adding “May you have beauty that launches a fleet / May you have grace at your feet.” An emotional song for sure, but it’s a cringe worthy one at that, never transcending the emotional platitudes of the bands he had critiqued for years.
Furthermore, the album gets disrupted early on by “Capers,” a puzzling ragtime inclusion. Complete with upbeat piano, cheesy string fills, and a corny trumpet breakdown, this is the kind of song that’d be playing at an overpriced, not-so-secretive speakeasy in whatever your city’s newest gentrified neighborhood is. “Capers” recalls “Mr. Tembo; a ukulele track on Damon Albarn’s otherwise pitch perfect 2014 solo debut, Everyday Robots, breaking up the album’s flow and distracting from its overall mission. “Capers’” addition on Fatherland is baffling at best, disrupting the solid one-two punch of “Streets Been Talking” and “You Keep On Whispering His Name.”
But Fatherland hits plenty of highs, including “Capers’” successor, “Grounds for Resentment,” featuring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander. Not only is this one of the first notable love song duets between gay men, it’s one of the better pop songs this year. Over a bouncy piano riff and warm keyboards, the two complement each other’s voices effortlessly, musing about the attraction between two recently broken up lovers that simply can’t remain apart.
Outside of “Grounds for Resentment,” Okereke shines on tranquil acoustic musings, like the beautiful “Yemaya” and the Corinne Bailey Rae-assisted “Versions of Us.” At its best, Fatherland lives up to the most downbeat and soothing Bloc Party tracks like “Kreuzberg” and “Signs,” proving that Kele Okereke is still every bit the same confessional songwriter that he always has been. But the lows on this album lie damn near the bottom of a cliff, where Okereke can’t escape lyrical and musical clichés that have plagued songwriters for generations.
Trading in dizzying electronics for Nick Drake-esque acoustics with nothing to hide behind, Okereke does an admirable job finally shedding his sometimes-coarse exterior, allowing himself to get incredibly personal in an album that addresses fatherhood in two ways simultaneously, as both a hesitant dad and a troubled son. It’s just a shame that what lies behind dozens of layers of metaphorical shrouds, isn’t a bit more poetic and interesting.