Listen #4 (prologue)
Fog is consuming the summits of the taller buildings around me, seemingly fed by white smoke as it leaks from the smaller ones’ chimneys. My fingers are shivering as I desperately get everything down on cheap notebook paper. I’m singing quietly, and frozen white puffs of my breath float up and join the rest.
I’m on the roof, on a lunch break. It’s the first week of, really, my first job. The first song I heard after getting off the phone and accepting this job, a fortnight earlier, was By Your Hand. They’d just told me the day I started. The day of the night I’d bought tickets to see Los Campesinos! live. I try not to automythologize but sometimes they don’t make it easy.
After all, their debut was my first published review. Albums two and three marked points along my student-journalist career. My brief flirtation with being a teacher was marked, notably, by no new albums, which felt like a hint.
What I’m getting at is, this might get a bit theatrical; it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a little self-indulgent. I hope you’ll forgive me.
They were a teenage crush, the last of my actual teen years. We were into all the same stuff. I was quiet and awkward, they were noisy and joyful the way . Theirs was the name I scribbled into the margins of notebooks. When I scribbled in margins, it read AS 4 LC!,encircled in a clumsy red-pen heart.
Now, we’re both a little older, both like to think we’re a little wiser. In the interim, there have been drunken passes, the occasional disagreement, and the discovery that one of us really likes football and one of us doesn’t. (“I’m not sure if it’s love anymore…” croons Gareth in my ear. Steady on, now.) Today the more refined LC! fan snorts at the mention of You! Me! Dancing!.
We’ve changed. And that’s healthy.
I think what I’m trying to say is that they’re slightly more reputable as a band than the brats who released those early demos. A bit less cute, a bit less clever. We’re speaking relatively here; this is an album packed with enough one-liners to fill a Top 40. There’s just something a bit relaxed to the whole affair, somehow, a bit comfortable.
Respectable, even, maybe. Except for the constant, infernal beating of that heart beneath the floorboards.
LC! have always sat right on the top of the slash dividing the life/death dichotomy. The records hum with so much energy – in the care that’s taken with them, with the amount of sheer sound – that they’re practically animate. And the songs have always been obsessed with life, in all its uglinesses. Gareth might have made a brilliant stand-up comedian, so precise is he at observing individual fragments of life that feel like they could be from your own, or that you wish could be.
Death is never too far away either, whether as a way to accentuate all the life stuff or, on Romance is Boring especially, coming to terms with our inevitable, not-all-that-eventual mortality. Violence and physicality have played a big part in every LC! album, but Hello Sadness pushes them to their extreme.
It doesn’t just accept that the heart is a symbol of love, it looks at that literally, and asks what exactly the other organs are up to. The Black Bird, The Dark Slope is body-horror-as-overwrought-emotional-metaphor, with the eponymous bird sitting inside Gareth’s ribcage and having a little nibble on his insides. Moments of intimacy are examined under a microscope: navels sliced by hangnails, psoriasis and freckles, lifelines burnt clean from palms. There are wishbones, abattoirs… It’s an album absolutely choking with bodily matter.
Bloody hell, Baby I Got the Death Rattle is fantastic.
All the old lines – hyper-dense, hyper-literate being the main one – don’t really apply anymore. There are probably just as many words spread across the 10 tracks, but they don’t feel as crammed in, like they’re fighting for space with all sorts of other half-digested ideas among the handclaps and shoutalongs.
Hello Sadness feels a bit more measured, a bit more smooth, a bit more accomplished. The music especially, which is slinkier and sexier than ever. There’s less machine-gun delivery of those lyrics that make you want to go and start a blog just so you can share them with the world. The verse/chorus balance slips a little more towards the latter.
By the same metrics I used to measure the early albums, this isn’t necessarily great. Then again, those metrics aren’t necessarily very accurate.
Those bloody choruses.
For me, loving LC! is all about the pleasure of the new. I genuinely hadn’t heard anything like Hold On Now, Youngster before: there was a bit of Kenickie, a touch of Bis, maybe, but nothing like this. And then they started evolving quicker than your eye could follow, realising the tricks they relied on and changing them before you had a chance to notice.
Each album was a sort of response to the last: the cheery glockenspiel of the first album pasted over by raw noisiness of the second, levelled out by the third’s ventures into richer, deeper sounds. There’s a sense that the band are never satisfied with their album-before-last for more than a year. It’s an impatient, fidgety, artistically healthy impulse.
For the first time, on Hello Sadness LC! sound like they have come to terms with their past. Romance is Boring was a fantastic album, one LC! are clearly proud of, and rightly so. But it means there’s nothing to react against. There are snippets reminiscent of everything they’ve ever done, in intros, in the way songs are laid out. It’s worth noting that my pre-order pack came with a CD full of Hold On Now, Youngster demos.
Hello Sadness is not a retort, but an acknowledgement. And rightly so.
But repetition is not something LC! wear well. Treading the same ground, they feel itchy Choruses, for example. It’s worth noting that at gigs it’s not the choruses everyone screams along to, but individual lines. Gareth isn’t quite as good at crafting lines that sound perfect repeated a dozen times as just once or twice.
Songs About Your Girlfriend clicks.
Jason’s drumming drives the whole song, high horsepower but taking a back seat to fat blocks of guitar and – gasp – the infamous glockenspiel, while Gareth plays one of my favourite pop roles: the unapologetically home-breaking temptress.
It shows how loose my generalisations about the album are. Unafraid to be clever-clever. The chorus works, and feels well earned. Lines drop like Tetrominos in the hands of an expert. Gareth’s tongue is a whip, sharp, fast, lashing outward before being turned on himself.
I’m falling in love properly with all the stuff there is to fall in love with on this album. The big Moments – like the way The Sea is a Good Place… suddenly drops from underneath you, screaming “IHOPEMYHEARTGOESFIRST” in We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, those Moments I felt denied by all the choruses and subtlety – are starting to become a bit more apparent.
I’m starting to learn the words, which helps. There are also the beginnings of an archaeological process; deciphering lines I’d misheard, or not heard at all. Every discovery makes me crack a grin, and can bathe fresh light on a whole song. That joy of the new, again.
I make the mistake of asking a few people I know to be LC! fans what they think of the new album. They present me with a mix of unsureness, apathy and scathing criticism. I kind of agree with all of them and – as someone susceptible to the thoughts of others - it will take me a while to metabolise this. (Until about listen #40, I reckon).
It doesn’t help that, with LC! being the only music I’ve got uploaded to my phone – my primary music-listening device out in the world – two or three listens a day is starting to burn me out. There are shafts of light, here and there, but it is during this period that I go back and tighten all the criticisms you read earlier.
I remember that in that hallowed debut review, I gave Hold On Now, Youngster an 8. Hrmmm.
There is a split in the middle of the album – the first half being largely poppy tracks that draw a line back to the early days, andthe second feeling like the logical extension of Romance is Boring. Rather than injecting variety, this makes it feel like the album’s stuck somewhere in the middle and stops it from feeling so definitive. It’s not a statement of intent, the kind that makes the journalist’s – or historian’s – job easy. It just is.
I accept that, fight my narrative urgings and try to just listen to the thing:
Hello Sadness is intensely listenable; after all, in the month since the CD arrived, I’ve played the album 40 times. Every time I’ve liked different parts, different songs, different halves of the album – I now fall on the side of the second half, with the grand sweeping songs more informed by rock than LC’s native pop.
The whole thing is beautifully sonorous. Notes ring out like a monstrous bell, finely tuned enough to be sensitive to the tap of a single fingernail. There’s a fresh clarity in the lyrics too. There are still a lot of little lines I don’t fully grasp, but it’s definitely easier to pinpoint what songs are actually about - not sketches or scribbles, but textured oil-paintings.
I think I wrote in the early days that their songs sounded like blocks of primary colour. That Tetrimino blockiness is still there in the music, but the colours have turned to tastefully faded pastel. The same goes for the emotions it presents. Hello Sadness is a self-announced breakup album, but it’s not a journey into the dark heart of the lonely, as much as an examination of all the complexities and subtleties. Songs About Your Girlfriend, listening a bit harder, actually gets a little more complicated than just Gareth as mocking pop siren. It’s a worthy endeavour, but articulating these feelings is necessarily a bit less dynamic; they lend themselves less to fist-in-the-air moments.
And maybe it’s just that I have no need for it right now, and hopefully not in my future either. There are times in my past, as I stuck my face deep into my pillow, where the album would have struck deep, would have been a companion.
These days, I’d rather be dancing. And there’s not much dancing to be had in Sadness.
Listens #41-43 (epilogue)
I’m sitting on a train, sweating into a Los Campesinos! t-shirt. The process of writing this has gone on far too long and I decide it’s time to reign it in before it goes from mess to unpublished mess. I listen to Hello Sadness another three times. There is nothing particularly magical about the experience, and honestly I don’t reach any particularly profound conclusions about the album.
I probably never will – although I might try again when I see them again in the spring – but it’s out there now, and all those loose thoughts can float up and away and join all the rest. I can finally let go, and see if I keep listening regardless.