I’ve had an off and on thing with London Grammar ever since their buzzy debut single and subsequent album set them up for a career of festival shows and Radio 1 Live Lounge slots. Not quite as minimalist as The xx, not quite as quirky as Alt-J, not quite as confident as Florence and the Machine, not as danceable as their Disclosure collaborations would let you believe; it always felt like London Grammar were always just behind everyone else. I was really rooting for them as a band though, with lead singer Hannah Reid always seeming like someone who’s never quite been allowed to showcase their true potential, something you hear directly on this their third album.
Californian Soul is a record of escape; from the confines of the band’s sound as well as regaining control of your own voice. It’s heard on the likes of ‘America’ and the title track, through very broad strokes lyrically, but it’s a clear theme throughout the album. I had read that Reid had had to really fight to regain creative control of the project, which must be why this whole album sounds so much more confident in its sound. Whether some of the more progressive changes in sound work for the better, that’s debatable, but I’d much rather hear an artist giving it their all like this.
The confidence is most obvious on the first single from the album, the electrifying build of ‘Baby It’s You’. Possibly my favourite track from the band yet, it’s the most electronic they’ve sounded too. The layers of drums and piano steadily build and build as Hannah delivers a delicate vocal. It’s the centre of the record and though it never properly ‘goes off’ I love the sense of euphoria it gives. The rest of the album could easily have sounded like this, a more danceable version of previous London Grammar music, but instead they’ve leaned into the pop hooks and pop production style more than ever.
On ‘Call Your Friends’ it works, I love the way the verses blend into the hook here, or on the sparse ‘All My Love’ Reid’s voice is as haunting as it was on ‘Strong’ and ‘Hey Now’. When it doesn’t work though, on the strangely empty sounding ‘Lose Your Head’ and the retro pop sound of ‘How Does It Feel’ it can start to feel like a missed opportunity.
‘How Does It Feel’ especially feels like a breaking point, I actually think as a song it would be fine with a more dynamic ‘popstar’ fronting it all, The Weeknd would kill this song, but by a band who work best when things are more delicate and otherworldly it feels a bit ambitious. That ambition is what makes so much of the rest of the album great though, so I would rather have these missteps than another by the numbers, and forgettable album from the trio.
I think that’s why I’d go as far to say this is the best album from the band yet, if not that at least their most interesting. If You Wait was a striking debut that perhaps didn’t have the longevity of similar albums from other bands, while follow up Truth Is A Beautiful Thing was such a retread of the same stuff the album cover even looks identical. On songs like ‘Talking’, Californian Soul truly sounds like the exciting dynamic band they had the potential to be back in 2013. It’s hit and miss, but when it hits it’s really enjoyable.
Words by Sam Atkins