The album opens with Alright, all driving drum beat and a Motown horn style synth line. A gentle electric guitar backs Greg Goldberg’s precise and understated vocal. When the Ballet sing “Everything’s gonna be okay,” I’m inclined to believe them.
My personal favourite track is Feelings. It’s part Roxy Music, part Pet Shop Boys all packaged with another superbly intimate vocal. There is a distinct early 80s vibe which manages somehow to sound both au courant and classic. That, perhaps, is the key to the track and indeed the album’s success, the seamless blend of old and new.
The album manages to distil the better aspects of the 80’s electronic scene with well-crafted, personal lyrics. Unlike, say, Stephen Merritt’s ‘69 Love Songs’, the songs on ‘I Blame Society’ are polished and precise, in places more reminiscent of New Order or the Human League than Merritt’s Magnetic Fields.
Certainly one could accuse ‘I Blame Society’ of being slightly kitsch with its prominent synth and subdued vocals, but for me this adds to the charm – The Ballet have managed to create a sound which is at once familiar and innovative.
For all the lyrical mood of the album is perhaps not as upbeat as the music suggests, it was fun – something which is sadly lacking from a great deal of music today. The Ballet understand their role as providers of entertainment and excel at it.
Fans of 80’s synth-pop will find much to enjoy in this album, as will anyone with an interest in the contemporary New York scene. Fans of album art, however, will not – the cover is right up there with Neil Young’s ‘Landing on Water’ in that it is one of the dullest, least inspiring covers that I have ever seen. With that in mind, I would probably describe ‘I Blame Society’ as a supermarket own brand chocolate bar – drearily packaged, but with hugely enjoyable contents.
It’s notable, then, that while the title of I Blame Society may allude to The Ballet’s radical sensibilities the music within is easily the most mainstream they have yet put their name to. This manifests itself not only in their most accomplished production to date but in lyrics which are never as direct as they have been previously. Meaningless, for example, has a nuance which is easily lost if you don’t know the band’s history. It opens with lines which allude to the gay marriage fight in the United States (and beyond) – “I’ve got no wedding dress, I’ve got no diamond ring… I guess my love is meaningless”. These lines could easily be taken as a standard plea for ‘marriage equality’ but, as the song expands to more existential questions of life, it becomes clear that singer Greg Goldberg is actually celebrating the freedom which comes with the absence of imposed definition and structure. It’s a song about queer liberation and with this in mind its shuffling gait and ’60s girl group backing vocals take on a greater resonance.
This subtext is present throughout I Blame Society but for the most part it’s obvious that it’s an album intended to be heard by people previously unaware of The Ballet. Its lyrics are carried in big, confident pop songs which fizz with melody and frequently manage the tricky balancing act of being generally appealing while addressing specifically queer themes. Too Much Time, for example, concerns the homophobic religious right yet comes on as quirky ‘us against the world’ anthem, its burbling synths and xylophone proving irresistible. The intriguing Turn You, meanwhile, is appealingly dynamic while offering dark lyrics like “I’m gonna make you sick like me, I’m gonna set your body free”.
The opening Alright makes the dash for more success instantly obvious, roaring out of the gates with pounding Motown-esque drums and strings which recall the brief liaison between McAlmont & Butler. Even more commercial is Feelings, the kind of ’80s new wave anthem which should soundtrack a film featuring Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald. It’s polished and persuasive stuff but there are moments when the lurch towards the mainstream becomes brazenly derivative – to say that Sorry pays homage to Erasure’s Breath Of Life would be putting it very kindly, while All The Way sounds like a Jesus And Mary Chain tribute band (albeit a very enjoyable one). Still, most of I Blame Society is intelligent, engaging and most importantly hugely listenable. It’s really not a stretch to imagine some of these songs soundtracking a future episode of Glee and, even if that’s unlikely, the possibility is a success in itself for such a previously niche band.