Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "No Blues," Los Campesinos! find light in the darkest corners

Despite getting relatively positive reviews upon initial release, Hello Sadness, the previous album from Los Campesinos!, has taken a beating from some fans in the two years since it was released.  Some cite the record's overwhelming gloominess as a turn off, stating that it was the point where soul-bearing frontman Gareth went from cheeky self-deprecation to morose self-seriousness.  Personally, it's my favorite Los Campesinos! album (landing at #2 on my Best of 2011 list), and part of it is because of the way it matched grim lyrics with indelible songwriting.  Nevertheless, perhaps Gareth himself found that record a little too dark as well, because he made it clear in pre-release interviews that No Blues, the band's fifth album, would be much happier.

Listening to the album itself, I'm amused by his idea of happiness.  Perhaps the name No Blues is meant to be ironic, since the album seems to serve as a 69 Love Songs type of record, except 59 songs shorter and all about death.  Despite the energetic and frenzied nature of their early songs, the band has always been obsessed with the macabre, and it's no different here.  What's particularly fascinating is how Gareth's lyrics almost reach a Cronenberg level of body horror, treating bodies as nothing more than vessels housing emotions.  Over and over, internal anguish translates to external wounds and extreme passion blends with extreme pain (ex: "Darling, if I had the choice, I'd excavate his throat of voice / and corrugate his vocal chords to play a tune").  But here, he seems to have found a new shade to his writing.  Sure the album is soaked in death, but it's rarely in a depressing way, almost as if there's a resignation to the inevitability of it all.  On the chorus of "As Lucerne/The Low," he even sings "(But the low) is what I came for / (and to bask) in a darkness I do adore."  Clearly, Gareth and the rest of the band have made peace with whatever was plaguing them the last time around.

Even romance, which has long been the deepest well for Gareth to mine misery and self-deprecation, takes on life and death stakes.  On the amusingly melodramatic "The Time Before the Last," he reminisces about the death of a relationship, describing "one last meal as one last gesture."  Elsewhere, he cheekily states "There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine."  It's lines like these that are his greatest gift as a lyricist.  You can tell there's a part of him that feels so deeply that he does see himself as the only person who's gone through this level of heartache, but his ability to poke fun at himself about it keeps the eye-rolling in check.  It's not a 100% necessary part of the formula (see: my enjoyment of Hello Sadness), but it's a welcome addition.  Just when he comes close to the edge of self-seriousness, he throws out a line like "Two words upon my headstone, please / don't need date or name, just 'Sad Story'" to reel himself back in again.  And for all of the large-scale, death-obsessed rhapsodizing that dominates the first 9 songs, the album closes with the comparatively subdued "Selling Rope."  It's a sharp right turn from the rest of No Blues' ethos -- a small, unnoticed demise -- but it's beautiful, moving stuff.

Not so much a 90-degree turn as a natural pivot is their sound, which continues its maturation from the glockenspiel-heavy days of yore.  Things are a bit scaled back on No Blues, but that doesn't stop it from also being the band's most sonically varied record.  Look back at their first four albums and you won't find anything like "The Time Before the Last," which starts off with a haunting chant before transforming into a driving, ornate song.  Even songs that closer fit the Los Campesinos! formula, like "Cemetery Gaits," are sprinkled with new elements (in this case, a lovely new wave keyboard riff).  Some of their most stripped-down songs make an appearance here, like "A Portrait of a Trequartista As a Young Man" or the measured pace of "Glue Me."  They haven't completely left behind guitars -- on the aforementioned "Glue Me," they're starry and languid; on "As Lucerne" they're piercing and direct -- but they've added some new tricks to the established rotation.  More refined compositions still can't dull their ear for melody though -- No Blues is, if nothing else, an incredibly catchy album.  "What Death Leaves Behind" and "Avocado Baby," the two songs released before the album dropped, are earworms up there with the band's best singles.

When Los Campesinos! first came onto the scene in 2007, many critics tossed around the word "twee" to describe their music.  While they've always had more bite than the other bands who were attached to that signifier, it still wasn't a stretch to lump the high-fructose Hold On Now, Youngster... in that category.  The term has become as dead as every other music blog buzzword (floating in genre heaven alongside chillwave, dance punk, and freak folk), with all of its bands either fizzling out (The Boy Least Likely To) or attempting to change their style and failing miserably (Architecture in Helsinki).  Los Campesinos! were one of the few to break free of that tag and find a sound that worked for them, but even though their albums still get good reviews, the larger music community doesn't seem to care about them in the same way that they used to.  Maybe album closer "Selling Rope," is reflective of the band itself, and they're more comfortable being unnoticed.  Whatever the case may be, No Blues is another incredible album from what is turning out to be one of the world's most consistent and consistently underrated bands.

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