Bombay Bicycle Club is one of scores of bands with a slightly ridiculous name that falls loosely into the category of “alternative,” and can be counted on to release albums frequently with subdued critical approval. This group, like its Pitchfork-friendly peers, has a healthy fan-base, instrumental competency, and a distinctive lead vocalist, but falls through the cracks all too easily.
Lead singer Jack Steadman has a voice that is undeniably unique and many listeners find it to be flat after more than a few songs. As a fan of Joanna Newsom, Stephin Merritt, and Clap Your Hands And Say Yeah, I am a devoted patron of distinctive voices, and welcome the challenge of weird music. Likewise, I don’t find Bombay Bicycle Club’s vocals annoying, but I do find their previous albums to be safe and verging on one-dimensional.
Bombay Bicycle Club released three albums between 2009 and 2011, all of high production quality with distinctive sounds. There are several songs on I Had the Blues But Shook Them Loose (2009) and A Different Kind of Fix (2011) that are incredible and worth taking note of, for example, “Shuffle,” “Always Like This,” and “How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep?” However, these songs are standouts—the other tracks simply serve as musically skillful, predictable backdrops. Flaws (2010) has strong folk components in the vein of Iron & Wine, but becomes tiresome and cloying given the already heavy sweetness of Steadman’s voice, here layered over upbeat melodies and flowery lyrics. The band’s February 2014 release So Long, See You Tomorrow embodies their well-established polished style, but doesn’t become predictable. SLSYT is as expertly executed as the albums preceding it, but is the band’s breakout performance in terms of connecting with its audience.
The opener “Overdone,” as its title suggests, is reliant on production with soaring harmonies layered over a synth background that eventually disappears into a completely opposite, gritty guitar and percussion style that belongs in an Arctic Monkeys single. The songs, “Home by Now” and “Whenever, Wherever,” have choir-like vocals and piano-horn-synth blooming compositions, and for better or worse are destined to be used in indie romance soundtracks for the next five years. That is a statement I would argue applies to this entire album, with the exception of the first and last songs, “Overdone” and “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” which belong exclusively playing over Wes Anderson credits.
Female vocals are intertwined with Steadman’s throughout the album, and particularly successfully in “Luna,” in which the female voice is not simply a compliment, but a counterpart. Much like those featured in the Postal Service’s “Nothing Better,” the female vocals are autonomous as opposed to being purely subdued harmonies. For listeners who find Bombay Bicycle Club’s vocals on past albums troublesome, So Long, See You Tomorrow offers a more approachable, that’s to say less experimental, style of vocal arrangements.
This album is (gently) dominated by love songs, or songs about love if that distinction is important to you. “Eyes Off You,” is the point in So Long, See You Tomorrow when the tone becomes overtly sentimental. This track has the slow build and sudden fade out featured in Temper Trap songs. Bombay Bicycle Club is not breaking ground lyrically, but the simple verses are carefully chosen. The words are also repeated a great deal, and almost as a rule in each song there is little distinction between verse and chorus. Bombay Bicycle Club’s fluid movement between styles within individual compositions is easy to get lost in, and repeating lyrics help guide the listener through the more adventurous instrumentation.
The incredible thing about music is that when it’s good, it can be a lens to view our own emotions. At least personally, any emotional experience I have with music inevitably becomes about me. In that way, music is the art form most susceptible to selfish interpretation.
My problem with Bombay Bicycle Club in the past was that its sound was so sure of itself and controlled that I couldn’t relate to it, perhaps more indicative of my problems than the band’s, but this is my review, so… However, one minute into the first song on So Long, See You Tomorrow, “Overdone,” I was connected to the music. About halfway through the album I realized that tears were starting to burn my eyes, which was incredibly confusing because I hadn’t been thinking about anything, and definitely nothing that would cause me to cry.
Usually our emotional responses to music are tied to our personal lives, and what we hear is simply a trigger. It is easy to use art as a kind of salve to make ourselves feel better, oblivious of whether or not we are appreciating the music or just using it. So Long, See You Tomorrow, however, does not leave room for bringing emotional baggage to the table. It evokes fresh emotions, untethered to our own histories, and the experience is nothing short of powerful. Of course, not every listener will take the time to experience SLSYT as a complete album, but even the tracks are strong independently, a huge improvement from past releases.
So Long, See You Tomorrow is a much-needed reminder that not everything is as hopeless as most high quality alternative rock would have us believe. This album is a great counter to the bleakness of bands like The Antlers and Los Campesinos. Bombay Bicycle Club is a breath of fresh air in the wake of the success of polarizing ultra-polished indie pop artists and gritty, plainspoken alternative bands. This album is essentially the musical representation of nice guys in love without becoming as syrupy as Temper Trap or Voxtrot. Imagine the love interests in 80s teen movies if they had never gotten their hearts unbroken, perpetually John Cusack holding a boom box before the happy ending. That pure, unadulterated earnestness is in this album, but with a healthy dose of Indian-influenced percussion.
In the final song on the album, also the title track, “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” the strongest elements of the album—the barebones synth, the horns, and the vocals—come together seamlessly. The song builds tension slowly, and is an absolutely euphoric finale to the album.
When we say goodbye, we want to remember the good, what made staying worth it, and this song captures that bittersweet suspension of time that happens as we let people go. The lyrics are simple and drawn out, only the best and most beautiful sounds are used for Bombay Bicycle Club’s farewell. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a concise, coherent album that makes a case for the beauty in both happiness and heartbreak, in addition to being an impressive musical production.