Ambition in pop comes in different forms. The most attention-catching is the megalomaniac variety, the kind of ambition that impels an Axl Rose type to fly an orchestra over from Ulan Bator in pursuit of exactly the right horse-fiddle tone. But sometimes ambition can be accompanied by modesty – as in the case of the four young men from the north London suburb of Crouch End who comprise Bombay Bicycle Club.
Almost everything about the quartet is unassuming. Their name is taken from a chain of Indian takeaways, its abbreviation doomed to be forever overshadowed by another BBC. They made game efforts to up their stagecraft at Brixton Academy, guitarist Jamie MacColl marching to the lip of the stage to play solos, singer Jack Steadman raising his arms at key moments in songs like a testifying preacher. But no one was fooled. MacColl’s guitar-playing was deft and intelligent, but fundamentally unflashy, while Steadman didn’t so much resemble a charismatic rock evangelist as someone about to deliver a weak hug to a taller acquaintance.
The ambition was all in the music. They started with “Overdone” from their new album So Long, See You Tomorrow, their fourth LP and the first to reach number one in the UK. A catchy Bollywood sample threaded its way through a song that united the fey indie-pop of their old work with a meatier style reminiscent of a Beastie Boys instrumental. A fusillade of lights flashed and swivelled, and the quartet – joined by two backing singers and a horn trio – bounced along amid the maelstrom.
Songs managed to be both busy and gripping. “It’s Alright Now” was built on a vigorous but intricate beat laid down by drummer Suren de Saram and bassist Ed Nash. “Your Eyes”, from a previous album, combined flowing guitar riffs with fast rhythms and passages of rocking out. There were calmer moments too: “So Long, See You Tomorrow” was a slow-building psychedelic mantra flaring into life with horns and electronics.
MacColl (grandson of folk grandees Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger) was a versatile guitarist, moving seamlessly from 1980s indie chimes to staccato bursts of noise. I’m not entirely convinced by Steadman’s twee singing style – his cry of “I can’t say no!” in “Whenever, Wherever” sounded more like a cough than the intended rush of passion – but he negotiated the songs’ twists and turns with disarming nimbleness. The decision to end with a new song, “Carry Me”, rather than a more familiar number was bold, in a modest sort of way: resonant beats and an irresistible chorus ensured the gamble came off.