Though they’ve made a sizable impact in their native Ireland, where they’re the second-biggest rock outfit after U2, Bell X1 hasn’t left much of an impression in the U.S., scoring just one Top 10 modern-rock hit. Their fourth studio album, Bloodless Coup, isn’t exactly a game changer for the band in terms of style, so it’s hard to say whether or not it will improve their fortunes with audiences stateside. Considering that Bell X1 falls along the same axis of arena-ready pop as Coldplay and Keane, if they’re planning to stage any kind of coup, it might work to their advantage to bring heavier artillery than what this album has to offer.
What Bell X1 has done well on their previous albums is match the heft of their arrangements with some tricky, mildly subversive lyrical turns. Bloodless Coup, unfortunately, too often misses the mark both with its arrangements and lyrical hooks. Lead single “Velcro” is indicative of the album’s greater problems: Producer Rob Kirwan gives the track a chilly synthetic wash during its verses, only to allow the band to come barreling in at full volume in the refrain. But not even lead singer Paul Noonan’s thundering drumline or Dave Geraghty’s anthemic guitar riffs can boost a hook as limp as “I’ll be your Velcro.”
“4 Minute Mile” doesn’t fare much better, playing out as less of a proper song than a list of random idiomatic phrases and some utter nonsense (“I’ll never suck a golf ball through a hose” and “I’ll never have a salad at McDonald’s”) strung together by the simple refrain of “That’s okay most of the time.” Songs that aren’t strident, ineffectual attempts at humor or irony, like “Safer Than Love” and “The Trailing Skirts of God,” are what salvages the album. But even then the quality of the songwriting is uneven, with “Built to Last” dragging on at least two minutes longer than it should.
Were Kirwan’s production a bit meatier, Bloodless Coup might be able to overcome the lapses in the band’s songwriting. In part because their frontman happens to sit behind the drum kit, Bell X1 tends to emphasize their rhythm tracks more heavily than bands like Snow Patrol or the Script. Here, Kirwan interprets that as an opportunity to bathe the album in distracting, shrill electronic effects that obscure Bell X1’s actual skill as musicians. Opener “Hey Anna Lena” scuttles along a tinny drum-machine backbeat, and “Sugar High” sounds like a badly dated new-wave relic. As was the case with Keane’s Perfect Symmetry and Night Train, the heavy ‘80s influence here ultimately pulls focus from what makes Bell X1 distinctive.