The trio from London-via-Nottingham have taken their bravest sonic step forward yet, but a lack of conviction and half-hearted production leave them a few steps behind where they want to be.
London Grammar‘s penchant for lush, nuanced production and emotionally resonant hooks gave them a reputation as one one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Even after their 2017 sophomore album Truth Is a Beautiful Thing landed at number one, there has always been an aura of hushed reverence around the trio’s brittle, angelic brand of dream-pop.
And that fact wasn’t lost on the band, either. Vocalist and songwriter Hannah Reid is an introvert by nature, and it was only after the band had completed the lifecycle of that album that she let her bandmates, Dan Rothman and Dot Major, know how she was feeling. As she told them in an email, “I feel like I’m hiding my story too much behind you two… there needs to be a leader of the band and it needs to be me”. The result of that shift in mentality is Californian Soil, the band’s third full-length album, and their most sonically brave to date.
That extra sense of adventure lends itself nicely to a handful of tracks. ‘Lose Your Head’ is as propulsive as London Grammar get, with blaring, island-style horns, glittering synths and a break-beat percussion line making this one of the album’s highlights. Lead single ‘Baby It’s You’ also falls into that category, with its aerated synth hook and some of the band’s most vulnerable lyrics to date. It’s an example of the extra ownership Reid has taken over the band and its work in the interim between their last album and this one. Rarely would we have heard a London Grammar song which was so straightforwardly romantic as this, or so overtly hopeful in its musical composition.
It’s a calculated step in the right direction. Borne out of a combination of Reid’s experiences of misogyny from people in the music industry and music press, and the band’s frustration with their lack of control over their own destiny within the confines of the music industry’s antiquated structures, this is an album which is making an effort to break free, both lyrically and sonically. It sees Reid deal with bad relationships and breakups on ‘Lord It’s a Feeling’ and ‘How Does It Feel’ respectively, while the renewed emphasis on stand-out, big beats and more hopeful chord progressions from Rothman and Major often inject a much-appreciated vibrancy into proceedings.
But it doesn’t always come off. After the saccharine, pious ‘Intro’, whose only purpose seems to be to needlessly flaunt Reid’s immaculate vocal performance, the titular number ‘Californian Soil’ comes across like a folktronica number à la more recent alt-J, complete with rickety, syncopated percussion. Meanwhile, while Reid’s lyricism is certainly bolder than before, it’s not always polished. Her half-croon half-rap on ‘Missing’ sounds like it was lifted from educational rap, and the Flume-esque production feels a few years behind the times. Closer ‘America’ wraps up the American dream metaphor in forgettable fashion, with washed-out guitars and an earnest melody.
This is an album which is ambitious and poorly executed. Not quite in equal measure, but not far off. While it gets a lot right in terms of sonically accessible leaps forward, there are plenty of moments where it sounds like the band are stuck between what they know they’re good at and where they want to go.
London Grammar’s Californian Soil is out now, and available to stream and download