This past summer, after hearing their music on commercials and seeing their hit single “Pompeii” performed on American Idol, I picked up Bastille’s All This ‘Bad Blood,’ the Deluxe Edition of their debut album Bad Blood. Full disclosure: The tipping point for me was finding out the album included the single “Laura Palmer,” inspired by the character of the same name in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television series from the early ’90s. The pairing of a hit pop band with something as strange and esoteric as Twin Peaks intrigued me.
I discovered a collection of songs more musically and lyrically sophisticated than I expected, wrestling at its heart with themes of isolation, storytelling, and what really lasts in the vastness of time. With references to Greco-Roman mythology, the Bible, and yes, even televised weird horror fiction, Bastille puts its own spin on each story and makes them personal and relevant for the modern-day listener.
Bastille started as the solo project of lead singer/songwriter Dan Smith, and each song bears the hallmarks of not just his singing voice, but his writing voice. There’s a struggle with tragedy in every song, whether it’s the fall of a city or a falling out between loved ones, and almost every song considers not just the tragedy itself, but who may be to blame. Songs like “Pompeii” and “Things We Lost in the Fire” tackle this from the perspective of self-reflection, with lines like “Oh, where do we begin— / The rubble or our sins?” and “I was the match and you were the rock / Maybe we started this fire.” Songs like “Icarus,” though, turn the finger on another, channeling some pretty rough accusations through the context of ancient myth:
Look who’s digging their own grave
That is what they all say
You’ll drink yourself to death
Look who makes their own bed
Lies right down within it
And what will you have left?
Icarus is flying too close to the sun
And Icarus’s life, it has only just begun
And this is how it feels to take a fall
Icarus is flying towards an early grave
It’s clear from the references he makes that Smith has the mind of a reader and writer, drawing connections between such diverse sources and connecting them to whatever subject matter he chooses to explore. “The Poet,” one of the gems from Disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition, explores the idea of a writer granting someone immortality (figuratively) by writing them into the words on the page. “Daniel in the Den” is a particular stand-out for me, once again directing the “fault” of the examined tragedy toward external culprits with its oft-repeated refrain, “Felled in the night / By the ones you think you love / They will come for you.” It also made me recall how several years ago, when my dad was attempting to read the Bible from start to finish, he commented on how the books of Kings 1 and 2 were essentially the same story told over and over again of kings rising and falling. Bastille’s lines “And for every king that died / Oh, they would crown another” placed over a continuously repeating progression of falling chords feel like a particularly appropriate and musical way to provide that bit of historical context and add some color to the song.
And that’s what Bastille seems to excel at, at its most basic level: taking old stories and providing a musical and poetic setting for them that’s uniquely Bastille. Time and again writers will say “Well, there are really only twelve stories,” or six, or two, or one, or however many will make you feel like the least original creative person. Whether that’s true is debatable, but in any case, Bastille, like many artists before them, demonstrates that just because you know a story already doesn’t mean you can’t find a new, interesting lens through which to view it. Bastille happens to filter these stories through a lens teeming with vocal harmonies, acoustic and digital percussion, and some choice arrangements with more classical instruments like the piano and cello. The combination of contemporary and classical instrumentation only serves to accentuate Bastille’s particular blend of old and new. Of course, there’s always a risk that doing so can sound just a step or two away from something recycled—a dubstep beat here or a piano melody there—but their arrangements manage to keep from sounding too much like anything besides their own particular sound, and the allusive and contemplative lyrics keep the music a few levels deeper than standard pop fare.
The songs that don’t make overt references to literary influences still convey a longing for connection that’s present throughout the album. The album’s first single, “Overjoyed,” states quite plainly, “Oh I feel overjoyed / When you listen to my words,” giving gravity to such a simple event with well-timed piano chords, while “Oblivion” laments the distance between the speaker and the object of his affections. One could even say that Disc 2, a collection of B-sides, covers, and remixes, further represents this ongoing search for things to relate to.
There’s a line from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet that I’ve always loved. Speaking about a songwriter, Rushdie writes: “[He searched] for the points at which his inner life intersected the life of the greater world outside, and [called] those points of intersection ‘songs.’” What All This ‘Bad Blood’ reminds us on both a musical and lyrical level is that no matter how distant we may seem to be from old stories or even just from the people we interact with every day, art can help us find those elusive connections and make us feel a little less alone. And even if we’ve heard the same story a million times, be it a classic fable or a Sunday-school story we’ve known since we were young, there’s always the chance that we’ll learn something new in the telling.
Ian Doherty is an online copywriter from Syracuse, NY with a major in creative writing and a minor in music theory & literature from Susquehanna University. When he’s not writing, he’s working on music or contemplating life’s biggest questions, including “Did I remember to lock the car?”