The 90s are so hot right now. The Spice Girls are on tour, Doc Martens are back in fashion, ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is finally making money for The Verve, and…Lamb have a new album. Ok it’s not up there with “Beck-ham, from the halfway line” and The Full Monty (as some sort of hastily chosen benchmarks for the decade) for example, but it’s here, it’s new and it’s…well let’s find out.
Opening track ‘Phosphorous’ is dreamy with its echoing piano and hymnal mutli-layered vocal harmonies. I can’t think of another chemical element that would sound as good sung the way Lou Rhodes teases every sibilant syllable out of “phosss-phor-ousss”. Like all good dreams it finishes early before you get to the best bit, simultaneously thrilling and unsatisfying.
The verses of ‘Armageddon Waits’ do a reasonable job at a Portishead impression in both instrumentation and apocalyptic lyrics. That is until the chorus comes in all orchestral with punchy horns and barmy Bond-theme strings.
Later on the album, ‘Deep Delirium’ stands in contrast with this and ‘Phosphorous’, promising a dream but instead delivering a jolting nightmare. The very same instruments couldn’t sound more different. Like all nightmares it goes on too long and ends suddenly.
Dreadlocked Irish MC Cian Finn appears as a guest on ‘Moonshine’ and despite his dubious sounding credentials they create a delightfully wonky nursery rhyme dub together.
‘Bulletproof’ gets us going wonky yet again and here the big bass joins. This theme carries through to the title track with its increasingly haunting repeated refrain of “the secret of letting go is forgetting to hold on”.
The middle of the album sees the duo’s most experimental moments this time around. ‘Imperial Measures’ and ‘The Other Shore’ contain odd b-movie horror moments with discordant strings and a spooky theremin making an appearance.
We get back on track with radio-friendly single ‘Illumina’ which is easily the best song on the album. The opening beats recall Massive Attack and Lamb of old before the bassline builds to a simple but more than effective chorus.
It has everything you want and expect from an album by an artist in the electronica/trip-hop bracket, plus plenty more that you don’t. But (ah the inevitable ‘but’) there is a sense that not much has moved on since those 90s. It’s 21 years since Massive Attack released ‘Mezzanine’, 23 years since Lamb’s eponymous debut and, believe or not, 25 since Portishead’s ‘Dummy’.
I’m certainly not saying it lacks creativity or that it’s boring, oh no. Perhaps safe is the word – like they could appear on adverts selling you bullshit concepts under the banner of intangible products or solutions to problems that you don’t have. There are melodies throughout that seem familiar even though you’ve never heard the songs before. I can’t decide if this is bland or comforting. It’s like when you’ve had Weetabix for the first time in ages. Indeed, the final two tracks could do with at the very least a sprinkling of sugar and 60 seconds in the microwave.
So a decent listen overall. Are they cashing in on a topical nostalgia trip or a worthwhile listen with some new ideas? Definitely the latter – I certainly don’t believe them to be so cynical. But do I see myself returning to listen to it in its entirety? Probably not. ‘Illumina’ and the stronger opening half I expect I will dip into time and again. It’s not the 90s anymore and I’m more of a muesli man these days.
Words by James Spearing