It’s a common theme in the history of music: band takes a hiatus; prominent band member goes and makes a solo album; the solo artist either eclipses the band in fame, choosing to continue in high-flying solitude, or he returns to the band and regular business hours while stating matter-of-factly, “Well, that was a fun break. Back to work.”
After the release of Bloc Party’s pre-hiatus LP, Intimacy, the British band’s frontman Kele Okereke set out to test the solo artist waters with The Boxer, recruiting American producer Alex Epton (a.k.a. XXXchange) to come on board for production. Epton is best known as a DJ and producer once closely affiliated with the group Spank Rock. He regularly turns out disco-leaning dancefloor remixes for obscure artists and megastars alike (see: his remix of Kylie Minogue’s “All the Lovers”). Anyone familiar with XXXchange might have cringed upon seeing his name in the production credits on The Boxer, fearing that Epton would turn Okereke’s debut into an ill-fitted, all-out disco-rave party. Surprisingly, Epton imposes a certain level of restraint and tailors the songs around Okereke’s already-established personal style rather than creating cut-and-dry XXXchange tracks, expecting Okereke to sing over them (something too many producers are guilty of). Epton proves rather adept at reconciling where Okereke has been and where he’s going, adding guitars and a slight African vibe on “The Other Side”, while still focusing on making a legitimate piece of electronica strong enough to establish Okereke’s identity as a solo artist.
The Boxer does suffer from being too overwrought and overly sentimental at times, such as the addition of tender-sounding female vocalists on tracks like “The New Rules”, or Okereke shouting pained, direct declarations like, “I could have given you everything you wanted/everything you needed” on “Everything You Wanted”. Granted, Okereke is known for his unmistakable slightly-strained voice, and there are places on the album where his trademark vocals works quite well, such as the amazingly intense chorus on “Tenderoni”, proving that the vocal approach on songs like “Everything You Wanted” goes a little too far down the wrong path. Some of the weaker songs aren’t as maudlin, but they do have excessive amounts of Euro dancefloor cheese, such as “On the Lam”, which sounds a bit like something you’d hear while shopping at Calvin Klein, but it actually becomes enjoyable at times once it gets past that sheen of clothing store-chic and finally approaches glitchy, quasi-dubstep production.
Truthfully, the tracks that have the most Bloc Party influence are also the strongest, such as the post-punk “Unholy Thought” and highly experimental “The Other Side”, both of which hold up the album amidst all of its missteps. That’s not to say that a Bloc Party retread is desirable—it’s just what Okereke knows and does best. Hopefully he doesn’t decide to completely resign himself to indie flair, because the (well-selected) single “Tenderoni” is more electro than indie rock, somehow still touting an irresistible punk energy that makes it the best song on the album. It proves that he’s definitely onto something. Whether Okereke decides to move on without Bloc Party or simply use his solo project as a creative supplement to his band, it’s certainly safe to say that The Boxer is a sufficiently strong and admirable first statement for Okereke under the Kele mononym.