Following up an album with a such a striking audio-visual package as their debut Columbia was never going to be an easy feat for The Blinders. The imagery of Johnny Dream and the stories inextricably linked to the novel 1984 were striking, but something it would be unwise to try and replicate. What The Blinders have done with their follow-up Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath is to widen their horizons in terms of subject matter without straying too far from the subjects of the political systems around the world, societal issues and mental health.
Many of the tracks they'd previewed live during the Columbia promotional tours simply didn't make the cut as they didn't fit the shift in focus that Fantasies represents. Produced by Rob Ellis, whose previous work includes PJ Harvey and Anna Calvi, the rougher edges of Columbia have been shorn off but replaced with a crisper more targeted sound - less of a steamroller approach, but one that ultimately still floors you.
Fantasies starts strong, the opening track Something Wicked This Way Comes starts off like a dark twisted waltz with a disconcerting simple repetitive drum beat dead centre - something which characterises much of this album. It's less throwing everything at it than Columbia, the headrush of a debut replaced by something more considered. The imagery of a pauper enjoying his pigs feet rather than the wealthy man's kings cut from the choice slaughtered boar honing in on the gluttony of riches and parading the benefits of that for show not necessarily bringing happiness in a head of "sordid wicked views".
40 Days And 40 Nights is a tale of being pursued and haunted by a figure who won't let go, the trigger-gun firing of the lyrics and the way the music lets fly the moment Tom stops singing adding extra tension and the sense of paranoia to the words. It's already a live favourite and they've captured the energy of that in the studio perfectly.
Lunatic With A Loaded Gun clocks in at less than two and a half minutes is the most overtly political track on the album, kicking straight in with references to children on the Mexican / American border held in cages being the here and now and not something out of the history books - as the poisonous xenophobia that Trump in America has enabled bubbles to their surface - "he gives his flag a hug and says what he must to gain their trust." There's subtle references in lines like "he takes aim at the sun" and the title which links him to his NRA supporters to some of his most ridiculous comments and the world burning as climate change is dismissed. In a world where few have taken the leader of the free world to task, James' Hank from their Living In Extraordinary Times album an exception, Lunatic is The Blinders taking up the baton from afar.
It's here where Fantasies turns away from The Blinders that burst onto the scene with such a fanfare a couple of years ago. They've described Circle Song as the best thing they've ever written and it's the work of a band that's decided that they can't just rely on their propulsive nature of their work to date and need to expand their horizons. There's tinges of some of their heroes in here - latter-day Beatles, prime Dylan and Townes Van Zandt - the lyrics feeling far more poetic and reflective ("how long have I been going round in these circles, perhaps I flew too close to the light") than their previous work, backing vocals used to give lift and depth and in the instrumental break they demonstrate control and mastery of a pace much slower than you'd expect from them.
I Want Gold turns further away from the past. It's a slow build, it's forty seconds before we hear from Tom, the mood comes from the tense tight drums and bass and shards of guitar that cut through Tom's deliberately emotionless delivery in the first half of the song. As it progresses, it feels like the explosion is about to come, but the sense of claustrophobia closes in as Tom declares "they say that I can't have it, they say I don't need it, I tell you I'm going to get it." The control they exert and the way the production ensures that every bit of sound is there for a reason feels more marked in these moments - but it never compromises the intensity or the integrity of the songs.
Interlude is a bit of a misnomer as the two minute piano-led track might slow things down, but the opening line of "in your wardrobe there are a lot of stripes, but what seems to be missing are the skeletons of the people you do not like" is the start of taunting the song's subject to follow through on threats as strings heighten the tension.
Mule Track is inspired by a painting in the Imperial War Museum of a mule train in a battlefield and attacks "those that preach three layers" and the traditional view of us being stuck between heaven and hell on earth, with an alternative vision of "a thousand levels with a thousand padlock doors." Once again there's an impeccable control of the timing and pace of the track, almost stopping dead in its tracks before setting off at breakneck speed again.
Drums and guitars take the lead at the start of Rage At The Dying Of The Light creating a taut tense canvas for Tom, that's drawn in and then allowed to unravel in pace with the song's dramatic movements. Moving away from traditional verse chorus structures allows them here to create something where you don't know what is coming next in the song even on multiple listens, that unease is unsettling and keeps you on your toes rather than letting the song wash over you as many albums do this far in.
It's a method that's reused with different components on From Nothing To Abundance, the song never standing still in one place, one minute guitars in control, the next a short delicious groove then a foreboding echo in the background and then a cacophony of noise lifted by judicious use of harmonies over Tom letting loose before stopping dead in its tracks.
The album's more sedate second half continues with In This Decade and Tom singing with a world-weariness about "when the mountain falls into the oceans and caves into the sea" with another biblical reference to swimming in the womb of Mary Magdalene. The acoustic guitar is almost out of tune, yet the simplicity of it and the rough edge to Tom's voice makes the song even more powerful, confirming that less is sometimes more. But the picture that's being painted is a bleak one - one that recent events since the album's recording have made feel more prescient - "In this decade there's no knowing if there's going to be a tomorrow."
The sense that parts of this album is made up of inner monologues of its characters is heightened by the six-minute sign-off of Black Glass, which sounds like absolutely nothing the band have done before - as it progresses, the music takes over, stepping on the accelerator at points and propelling the character faster towards the abyss as the strings that have held everything together start to unravel.
Fantasies Of A Stay At Home Psychopath is a band shedding the youthful exuberance of their debut album and replacing it with a more controlled and targeted attack on many of the same subjects as Columbia. The power of the album comes not from adrenaline, particularly in the second half, but from the descriptive nature of the lyrics and the way the music heightens the message that's being presented. Rather than being at the eye of the storm being thrown around by it, The Blinders sit as informed articulate observers of the very strange world that we inhabit, documenting it with poetic license and cultural reference points. They've avoided that difficult second album syndrome by ripping up the debut's blueprint and rewriting it with the benefit of accrued wisdom.
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The Blinders play London Electric Ballroom (March 4), Leicester O2 Academy 2 (5), Southampton Joiners (6), Cardiff The Globe (7), Reading Sub 89 (8), Hull The Welly (10), Edinburgh Caves (11), Preston The Ferret (12) and Manchester Albert Hall (13).