With the arrival of Blossoms’ fourth album ‘Ribbon Around The Bomb’, frontman Joe Ogden and drummer Joe Donovan reveal the deeply personal aspects of this character-driven record, a shift in the band’s sound, and the importance of enjoying the present.
Stream: ‘Ribbon Around The Bomb’ – Blossoms
I interpreted it as the dressing up or disguising of something that’s really destructive or which has an underlying darkness to it, something that you’re not really showing. It’s like when you’re saying to everybody you’re okay when really you’re not.
A piece of music that seethes joy is a rare thing.
Like “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners for instance, it’s a song that makes the most uncoordinated brooder bop their head and tap their feet, a song which can make a movie like Perks of Being A Wallflower seem like a lighthearted rom-com for just a moment. Joyful work comes from genuineness, honesty, and a love of what you do. Blossoms’ new album, Ribbon Around The Bomb is one of those rarities, though its title it both deceptive and true to the sentiment.
Sat criss-cross-applesauce next to drummer Joe Donovan, Blossoms’ frontman Tom Ogden delves into the root of their new release, which originated in front of a Frida Kahlo painting.
“The first song was written for the album at the end of 2019,” he says. “It’s a song called ‘Ribbon Around the Bomb,’ which is obviously became the title. I was in Mexico with my now wife and we’d just played a festival but stayed a few days longer to do all the touristy things. We went round to the Frida Kahlo house and her house is now a museum. Someone that described her painting as a ribbon around the bomb and I just thought, ‘Oh that’s a great title.’”
The phrase was originated by French surrealist writer André Breton, whose particular wording was circulated by The New Yorker in an account of one of Kahlo’s installations at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1938. And though the expression takes on new meaning in the context of Blossoms’ album it nevertheless evokes a very particular image – the beautification of something dangerous.
She said, “Life gets no better and no worse”
‘Cause where we came from, they tell you it’s a curse
Hiding places lonely as she does
Their smiling faces, no, they don’t need us tonight
Are we one ribbon around the bomb?
My nocturnal creature, she don’t sleep
For all the sounds here, they’re so strange to me
Then she said, “Boy, meet me by the beach
“On the edge of the retreating sea tonight”
Are we one ribbon around the bomb?
Take me home, ribbon around the bomb
“When I read it,” Ogden says, “I interpreted it as the dressing up or disguising of something that’s really destructive or which has an underlying darkness to it, something that you’re not really showing. It’s like when you’re saying to everybody you’re okay when really you’re not.”
“It’s like a mask,” Donovan adds, “like you’ve got bad news but you’re making it seem better. Saying ‘yeah this is a bit shit but it is how it is, so I’ll tie a little ribbon around it.”
And though the idiom is open to a great deal of interpretation, it’s rather surface level in its relatability. Be it the mask that many adorn just to get through the day or, as Donovan suggested, the delivery of bad news with a smile, the image of the ribbon around the bomb brings about a very familiar feeling; one need not think too deeply to understand what it means to them.
At the time of the album’s genesis Ogden was dealing with his own decorated weapon, finding that bountiful success wasn’t feeling the way he believed it should.
“At the end of 2019 we’d had quite a lot of success in the UK, we’d played a big hometown football stadium show to like 15,000 people, we’d played all the big festivals, but I was kind of a bit unhappy in myself. I was just kind of overanalyzing everything and I wanted everything to be perfect. It was a bit of imposter syndrome maybe, because we’d never really stopped for so many years and I was the frontman and I was a bit like ‘oh I’m not really comfortable with who I am, I need to be better I need to do better.’ The frontman position never really came naturally to me and now it does; I suppose I’ve found it more. And I think that bled into some of the songs and I became rather reflective. A lot of the songs were kind of looking back at how we got here after all those years and the position I’ve found myself in. It’s quite a personal record.”
The frontman position never really came naturally to me and now it does; I suppose I’ve found it more, and I think that bled into some of the songs and I became rather reflective.
The album is a thematic one, though it’s not quite a concept album – think more Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino than American Idiot or Quadrophenia. It centers around the characterization of a writer who is based a bit on Ogden, though he didn’t realize it at first. Though he keeps a list of “possible song titles” in his notes app (phrases that he encounters day-to-day that makes him stop and go – “hey that’d make a great song title”), at times his songwriting process can be more a cathartic one in which songs “fall out,” as he puts it.
“I always use this example but our song ‘There’s A Reason Why (I Never Returned Your Calls)’ is one of our songs that literally just fell out. I didn’t get the phrase from a book, I didn’t get it from anywhere, it was just how I was feeling.” Having collaborated on most Blossoms albums with The Coral’s James Skelly, the idea of a thematic album arose with both Skelly and Ogden wanting to do something a little different with this one. “I had a couple of songs talking about the sulking poet, little things here and there, but once we loosely wanted to get a character in there, The Writer came about.”
The idea of writing an album about writing was appealing to Ogden, who enjoyed the levels with which he could play under that framework.
“The Writer” as a character was based off of the character from Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and brought some older songs that loosely fit the intended vibe into motion. “It [the character] made all these songs make sense, ‘The Sulking Poet,’ ‘Ode To NYC,’ Ribbon Around The Bomb,’ these songs then kind of fit, but I suppose it’s [the character] really just about me.”
Ogden references a line from one of the final tracks of the album, “Visions,” in which he asks, “Was I complete at twenty-three?”
“When I wrote that, James Skelly was like, ‘That’s what the album should be about.’ ‘Cause I’d just had a number one album, I was with my now wife, so looking back now I’m like, fucking hell I achieved everything so young, where do I go from there? How do you keep yourself inspired? That’s kind of what lockdown did to me; I looked back. The album is about reflecting on how we’ve gotten here,” Ogden explains, to which Donovan poignantly notes, “and how fucking mental it is.” Just as the final scene of Stand By Me shows the writer coming to terms with his and his friends’ journeys, Ogden’s own Writer character helped him do the same.
The album opens with a short piece called “The Writer’s Theme.” As the record was intended to be a thematic one, the song was used to bookend the work as a cohesive unit. “We kept talking about how [The Writer] should be like a character in a film and that’s why we called it what we did, cause we believed that’s what the character would have in a movie, kind of like ‘Rocky’s Theme’. It starts with strings and is all lush and then by the end it’s kind of stripped back and a bit more melancholic.”
“Stripped back” is a great way to describe this album as compared to Blossoms’ previous releases, stepping away from the synth and keyboard focused melodies that their works relied on before. There’s an emphasis on string components, be it guitar or violin at times, bringing about a very different sound from what Blossoms has presented before. This shift brings about an intimacy to the sonic aspects of some of the tracks, accompanied by the very personal lyrics.
“Ode To NYC” follows “The Writers Theme,” and it gives way to that joyful feeling that comes through a lot of this album. In the song’s descriptions of different locations around New York, it feels like you’re watching an old video that you bought at a stranger’s garage sale. When you watch through the tape, you see two young lovers galavant around New York, eyes wistful and hearts warm. As Ogden sings, “the skylines, my valentine, I feel like a first-time lover,” there’s a peaceful bliss that sinks into your chest, imagining the serenity of a beautiful scene with a loved one. The song, recently listed as an Atwood Magazine Editor’s Pick, was originally a submission to Netflix to be featured in the film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 3. Though it didn’t make the final cut, the cinematic aspects of the song are present throughout:
I’m wide awake, Empire State of shock through my body
You can stay on Bleecker Street, Midtown and on Broadway
A sea of pink in Central Park forms from trees of blossom
The Bowery is divine in its own way from top to bottom
The street fairs, Times Square’s a kaleidoscope of colour
The skyline’s my valentine, I feel like a first-time lover
And so it seems it never sleeps, the subway is my haven
From 42, the Brooklyn loops and Grand Central station
Fall in love with New York City
Fall in love with New York City
The delightfulness of love is present in a few songs throughout the album like “Care For” and “Everything You Are,” though love was never intended to be the album’s central idea. “On the last record,” Ogden notes, “I wrote a lot about being in love and I made a conscious effort to do that because the first two records have more breakup songs because that’s what was going on in my life. I find it harder to express positive words about someone, or at least I used to. I’ve gotten better at it but it’s always easier to say ‘there’s a reason I never return your calls’ than ‘I love you, I think you’re great.’”
Ogden pauses and notes that “I Love You I Think You’re Great” could be a good song title, making a mental note to add it to the list in his notes app later. “But without sounding cringy, it’s easier to be honest when it’s sad cause you can literally say ‘I’ve not got out of bed for days’ whereas if it’s just ‘the sun is shining I’m in love,’ that’s a bit sickly. But ‘Care For’ was just really honest, again, it just kind of fell out.” Having been recently married and trying not to get caught up in the album’s theme, Ogden found that a) the present love songs were just good songs that they wanted on the album, and b) having been married last year, “I’ve got to have at least a couple in there I suppose.”
“Care For,” as Donovan puts it, feels like a wedding disco. It’s lighthearted and sounds like being in love. It combines the string components of this album with a keyboard melody that keeps the song bouncy. The song feels filled to the brim with emotion, like a contained sonic explosion. Yet in “Born Wild,” a song which harkens back to the Blossoms’ sound that fans are used to, Ogden put focus on the phrase, “It feels so wrong but boys must be strong,” referencing the pressure that many men face to suppress emotions.
The notion of emotional suppression ties in interestingly with the album’s title: The ribbons that men may find themselves attached to, things necessary to conceal their own bombs.
Yet many of the greatest or most famous writers have been men and have found their outlets in their art, a place where they might untie their ribbons and let their bombs detonate.
“People can feel these strong emotions but not know how to get them out, and that’s exactly how I was feeling yet I managed to write a song about it and it did make me feel better.” “Even for me, I mean I don’t write any, fuck I mean it’d be awful if I did,” Donovan says with a laugh, “but just doing anything musically, just playing together is such a great release. I think doing anything creative is a nice sort of breath out, a way to unload. Playing drums is so physical and I’m quite an angry person, small and angry,” (*author’s note: his words not mine) “so drums are great for me. I can go out there and absolutely smash the fuck out of some drums and then afterwards I feel like a very delicate flower.”
Just doing anything musically, just playing together is such a great release. I think doing anything creative is a nice sort of breath out, a way to unload.
Donovan mentions that Blossoms was never started with an end goal, noting that even Ogden didn’t believe that “making it” would ever happen.
“Even when we’d gotten management,” Donovan says, “it was never a given, it never happened easily.” Yet left with the feeling that they’d achieved all they wanted at the age of twenty-three, it seems rational to hope to carry on as they’ve been doing and hope that their hard work will translate farther beyond the UK than it has already.
“We need to continue doing the best thing we can,” Donovan says, “and if it happens, great. If not, you always know you’ve been true to yourself. I think that’s well more important than striving to get things because as soon as you try to get places, that’s when it can not be authentic, that’s when it can be faked. Sometimes you can overthink things too much and that’s when it can become disastrous.”
“We want to stay current, try for longevity you know, give it a proper push and have fun with it” Ogden adds. “Consciously living in the moment and not trying to look too far ahead.”
Ribbon Around The Bomb is out today on all streaming platforms. Blossoms will be playing two American shows this August, at Irving Plaza in NYC August 16th and El Rey Theater in LA August 18th.
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? © Madeleine Penfold
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