It has always been hard to label the genre of music that Lianne La Havas creates. On her debut in 2011, she was labelled as Alternative in some places, Soul in others, while, on her TV debut, she was described as Folk(?!) and toured with Bon Iver that year too. Navigating all of the way to the confusingly scattergun Neo-Soul genre label by the time her second album Blood was released, it’s easy to see why Lianne was growing tired of having to meet expectations of what her music was, rather than whether it was actually good or not.
On her self-titled third album, there are no worries about what type of music this is. Everything about this album is laid back.
There’s a joy in how these songs meld together into one cohesive listen, the sort of record that sitting out in the sun and chilling was made for.
Instantly her most accessible and consistent album yet, spending the last few weeks with the record has only heightened my enjoyment.
Opener ‘Bittersweet’ was already one of the standout singles of 2020 so far, brimming full with emotion and a soulful vocal from La Havas. It remains probably my favourite song that she has released, but interestingly here it feels more like a bridge from the sound of her last album into this one, than fully part of the ‘album’. In this way, the fact that the digital version of the album ends with the song again, this time in its shortened single edit form, feels like bookends to the central piece. On ‘Bittersweet’ she ramps up the soul, whereas elsewhere everything is a lot looser.
The most obvious thing that carries the album through is her voice. On this record Lianne has even more light and shade than she has before, there’s a fluid quality that I love on songs like ‘Green Papaya ‘and ‘Seven Times’.
But my favourite aspect of the record is her guitar playing. It’s where she shines as a performer, able to perform every one of her songs completely alone thanks to the picking style she has always used on her records. Here it’s even more prevalent and is heard so high in the mix that it sits right next to her voice as the main attraction to the ear.
‘Paper Thin’ is a delicate and emotive moment: ‘Paper-thin, You understand the pain I’m in/Slipping in and out of such confidence and overwhelming doubt’ while ‘Read My Mind’ has a sense of longing to it. ‘Can’t Fight’ is bright and airy, while ‘Courage’ has so much loneliness in its lyrics. As an album this is so clearly documenting a relationship, from first glance right through to questioning how to come out the other end in one piece. It really works as a thematic ‘album’ but stays away from super-specific stories for more of an overall mood instead.
The outlier in all of this is surely the Radiohead cover that sits right in the middle of the album. At first it feels a bit jarring (the rest of this album is so clearly written about someone, or at the very least La Havas’ own experiences), so why stick a track from In Rainbows in the middle of it?
In practice it works surprisingly well. It’s interesting that Lianne’s original live cover was our own editor Fran’s entry point for when he did a Blind Taste Test of Blood earlier in the year. As a fan of Lianne La Havas, but not really being too clued up on Radiohead, I’d never seen the influences before, but here it’s blatantly obvious. The structure of the songs is so changeable, the instrumentation lends itself more to early 00s alternative than it does to Soul, so it’s clear that a song that left such an impact on her would be included on her self-titled album.
All of this culminates in probably my favourite song on the record (other than ‘Bittersweet’): The powerful ‘Sour Flower’. I love the use of the hand claps that offset her guitar picking here, the outro especially being so entrancing as a listener. It’s the sort of song I can’t wait to hear live, whenever that will be safe to do so, full of soaring vocal moments and quieter delicate moments too.
Lianna La Havas wasn’t out to prove anything with her 3rd album and it shows. There isn’t the same intense driving power that she had on Blood, but instead it feels like she’s finally relaxed into her sound. It’s her most consistently great and cohesive album yet, showcasing her incredible vocal and talents as a guitarist front and centre.
Words by Sam Atkins.