Quickly riding on the coattails of the commercial advancement of grunge during the early 90s, British band Bush’s debut album, Sixteen Stone, released in 1994, was met with instant success, debuting at number four on the Billboard 200, with two of its singles, Comedown and Glycerine, peaking at the top spot of the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. Bush’s sound on Sixteen Stone was so clearly influenced by grunge’s most successful artists, Nirvana and Pearl Jam in particular, that it’s perhaps no surprise that the album turned out to be so commercially viable. The band’s sound was so evocative of these acts that Bush were amongst the first wave of groups to be described as post-grunge, with this label often being seen as a deprecatory means of defining those bands that were seemingly shamelessly appropriating the grunge blueprint laid out by bands before them. With the more pejorative connotations of the name aside, post-grunge, particularly as a result of bands like Bush, has now come to be associated with a more mainstream approach to grunge music, incorporating an aesthetic more suggestive of pop rock and, indeed, on the British outfit’s latest studio effort, Black And White Rainbows, this side of the band’s sound is more evident than on any of their previous material. With Bush’s frontman, Gavin Rossdale, now being in the public eye more than ever before, given his stint as a singing coach on singing talent show The Voice UK, such a development is arguably understandable. Indeed, on Black And White Rainbows, Rossdale and co. pursue their most inoccuous, innocent and complaisant approach to songwriting thus far in their career, with practically every song on this record adhering to a cut and dried, mainstream alternative rock formula, featuring mid-tempo grooves, ample powerchord usage and many ballad-like song structures and vocal performances from Rossdale. The end product, however, comes across not as appealing as the band likely intended, but rather so flat, so plain and so humdrum as to sound completely lifeless and insipid at the best of times. No single song on here is particularly discernible from the others surrounding it, with the instrumental arrangements remaining consistently safe and Rossdale’s lyrics persistently similar and forgettable. Indeed, the best moments on this album are simply passable, but there are also a number of tracks that are fraught with technical errors, poor performances and a general lack of cohesion to the point that it’s understandable to question how some of these songs passed quality control. Black And White Rainbows, therefore, is surely Bush’s most awkward, clumsy and, ironically, unappealing record to date, with this album being bland at the best of times.
Across this album’s 15 tracks, which span across nearly an hour’s worth of material, there is little variation in terms of song structure, dynamics, instrumental arrangements, lyrical topics, production value or much else, really. For an album of considerable length to be completely resigned to one specific blueprint, adhering to it with utmost strictness, it can be quite hard to discern how is best to approach discussing it without resorting to very general statements. What’s more, considering it’s the particularly questionable or genuinely bad moments that stand out, these are what one’s mind jumps to immediately. However, as for the less wanting moments on Black And White Rainbows, the album opener, Mad Love, essentially sums up what the listener can expect to find on the record’s better cuts. This track is as mid-paced as practically every other song on the record, with a rudimentary drumbeat accompanying some pretty typical wailing guitars. Rossdale’s vocal performance on this track is at least relatively memorable, although this could arguably be put down to the incessant repetition of the song’s hook, but it seems that Bush were going for somewhat of an anthemic, radio-friendly chorus on Mad Love. The main issue with this, however, is that the production is so flat and claustrophobic on much of this record that the attempted grand chorus is incredibly lacking, with there being little textural difference between the verse and chorus despite the differences in instrumental arrangements. Admittedly, not every track suffers from this problem, with Water coming to mind as displaying a more actualised approach to pursuing an impactful chorus, although this is seemingly largely achieved by stripping down the verse to just clunky bass chords and some rhythmic embellishments from a drum pad. Indeed, it must be said that Bush seem to be trying desperately hard to convey as inoffensive a sound as possible, with the ironic end product being so bland as to certainly turn a lot of people off Black And White Rainbows. The sound on this record is so one-dimensional and so restrained, both in terms of the samey instrumental arrangements and dull production value, that it’s hard to imagine this album retaining any sort of broad appeal.
Indeed, with the best moments on Black And White Rainbows being merely tolerable, the worst moments sometimes exhibit such glaring issues that it’s difficult to fathom how they came to be put on the album. Sky Turns Day Glo, for instance, is one such song, with many of its ills being down to the band’s frontman. Rossdale’s vocal performance is occasionally shaky on this track, but what’s more noticeable is the fact that he struggles to keep in time with the instrumental at several points, particularly during the chorus. This track is also one of note as a result of its lyrical topic, which sees Rossdale take a step back from his usual superficial soul-searching and tackle the issue of climate change. However, the singer often falls short of the emotions that he seemed to be seeking to evoke in the listener, instead often resorting to nondescript clichés like “You are broken / Let me fix you / Don’t bleed” that could really be about anything. People At War also sees Rossdale deliver lyrics so vague that it’s genuinely hard to decipher at times whether he’s actually discussing war or simply attempting to use it as a metaphor for something else. Whilst on the topic of People At War, it has to be said that Rossdale comes through with another lacklustre performance on this track, again often falling out of time and losing clarity in his voice as he reaches into his lower range. His vocals also lack any real cohesion with the instrumental arrangement, which also suffers from some questionable decisions, such as the awful, tinny vocal effect used on the backing female singer’s voice. People At War was surely composed to be the album’s closing track, hence why it assumes the trite role of being softer in complexion, but the end product is one of the weakest songs on Black And White Rainbows and it most likely harms the chances of many listeners being eager to revisit this record any time soon. Ultimately, there is really nothing on Black And White Rainbows that I could find that distinguishes Bush in any way from an ageing rock band who are unsure as to how to incorporate their previous stylings into a modern context, with many a bad decision being made in the process.
Perhaps the salient cardinal sin of Black And White Rainbows is that it seems to be an entirely purposeless release for Bush. The more closely one listens to it, the more questions are raised regarding what the band had in mind for this record or what they felt it would add to their discography. With even the best moments being as safe and tepid as they are, and with a significant shift to a more mainstream rock sound that may upset some fans, it seems that Bush will be appealing to very few people with this album, despite a heightened sense of pop appeal likely being the key intention of this project. The worst moments aren’t necessarily completely deplorable, but they are unequivocally clumsy and amateurish at best, which isn’t what one should expect from a band who have two decades’ worth of experience under their belts. Ultimately, Black And White Rainbows seemingly fails at whatever purpose it retained for the band and the end product is so forgettable as to come across as largely pointless, for both Bush and the listener.
The Vinyl Verdict: 3.5/10