Kele - The Boxer

by Rich Morris Rating:6 Release Date:2010-06-21

With Bloc Party on hiatus (possibly permanent), it's time for Kele Okereke to launch his solo career with The Boxer. Kele has spoken at length in recent interviews about the changes he has made in both his personal life - more exercise, new apartment, more open attitude towards his sexuality - and music making - having hooked up with Brooklyn remix maestro/Spank Rock producer XXXchange, this debut uses a sound palette closer to electro, dubstep and techno than indie or post-punk.

Anyone who saw his recent Attitude magazine cover appearance can be in no doubt that these changes seem to have been good for Kele - the once skinny, bookish boy who hid behind his deadlocks now appeared shirtless, buffed and sporting a disarmingly open smile. Wonderfully, this newly positive attitude is in evidence on The Boxer. Several songs come speckled with declarations of raised self-esteem. "I'm getting taller," he coos over the skipping electro of opening track 'Walk Tall', while on the delicate, hymnal electro of 'Rise' he sings "You are stronger than you think."

However, anyone who assumes from this that The Boxer must be an upbeat record has possibly forgotten Bloc Party's back catalogue. During his time in that band, Kele turned social awkwardness and morose insularity into art more frequently than any songwriter since Thom Yorke. So it's no surprise to find that the optimism evident on his first solo album is tempered, at times overwhelmed even, by familiar declarations of despair, frustration and unhappiness.

In some ways, the downbeat moments make thematic sense. Kele has spoken about how the songs on The Boxer document the end of something and the beginning of something else. And since Kele has been frank about the generally unhappy and stressful situation in Bloc Party he left behind, such moments actually feel justified, certainly more so than the overgrown-adolescent whining which he was unfortunately partial to on Bloc Party's second and third albums. When he moans "You're making me older/ You're making me ill" on 'All the Things I Could Never Say', it not hard to guess the likely subject matter, couched though the song is in terms of an errant lover.

The problem with The Boxer is not so much these down moments as the up ones and Kele's basic inability to sell them. Take, for example, penultimate song 'Yesterday's Gone'. With its lyrical references to wiping away tears and opening windows to let the sunlight in, it's quite clearly meant to act as the album's big, uplifting, redemptive moment, akin to 'One Day Like This' on Elbow's 2008 breakthrough, The Seldom Seen Kid. Like Guy Garvey, Kele has a careworn, slightly-spooked voice more suited to conveying bleak news than delivering an entreaty to rise above everyday troubles. Yet, try as he does, Kele just cannot sell his big moment the way Garvey did his. The song's well-worn conceits remain unconvincing; Kele just can't shake off the air of the perennially insular youth, no matter how much he would like to.

To be fair to Kele, The Boxer is not meant to be an arena-filling album like The Seldom Seen Kid, as one can immediately tell from the music which frames Kele's voice. The sounds onThe Boxer are unflinchingly modern, urban and geared towards nightlife. Again, anyone familiar with Bloc Party's output will not find this too surprising. However, where Bloc Party songs such as 'Mercury' and 'Signs' shuffled awkwardly but enthusiastically at the edge of the dance floor, The Boxer fearlessly takes the plunge. Whether on the rock-hard techno sound of first single 'Tenderoni', the churning Afrobeat of 'The Other Side' or the stuttering dubstep and drum'n'bass of standout track 'On the Lam', Kele bravely allows his voice and lyrics to be thrown into new musical situations. For this he is to be appluded.

Overall, The Boxer is a mitigated success. You suspect that, whatever the man himself may say, Kele Okereke still isn't totally sure of himself, either as a songwriter or an adult. With that in mind, The Boxer is the laudably unguarded work of a young man working out where he is and who he is becoming. Taken on those terms, it's almost a little heroic.

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