Most bands that survive for at least a few records almost always have one of those “game changing” albums during which they make a radical adjustment to their sound. The thinking is that the shift in direction will keep the band themselves from getting bored while challenging current fans and courting new ones. Musical trends change too, and sometimes a band doesn’t want to sound like they’re “behind the times” or are desperate to sound like whatever’s hot at the time. These shifts are all the more noticeable the higher profile the band is, which is why U2’s transformation in the 80s was so noteworthy, and why Radiohead’s move towards all-out electronica on “The King of Limbs” resulted in a lot of backlash (see also: the knife twist between “OK Computer” and “Kid A”). But sometimes a band changes their sound in the most organic way possible: slowly developing it record by record. Such truths are most evident provided you’ve been keeping up with a band from song 1, and the younger the band members are at the time, the better. Such is the case with Los Campesinos!. The Welsh collective first came to everyone’s attention via 2007’s “Sticking Fingers Into Sockets” EP, then a bunch of fresh-faced college dropouts with pop culture obsessions and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. Their sound was undeniable winsome indie pop, complete with glockenspiels galore, shout-along lyrics and choruses that were catchy as all get-out. The exclamation point at the end of their name said it all, along with song titles such as “You! Me! Dancing!” and “We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives”. Such fun and addictive simplicities were maintained on the band’s 2008 full length debut “Hold On Now, Youngster”, but very shortly thereafter things began to change.
Several months after the release of their first full length, Los Campesinos! released the 10-track “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed”, a limited edition “mini album” containing all new songs that was recorded a couple months prior during a brief break from touring. The title alone said volumes about it, but track titles like “Miserabilia” and “Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1” also helped to spell it out for you. The quick tempos, shouty choruses and glockenspiels all began to take a back seat to heavier guitar work and singer Gareth Campesinos’s hyper-literate lyrics. Their sly, winking humor was largely replaced by astute commentaries on the pitfalls of relationships be they romantic, friendly or familial. Think of these transitional stages like a child growing into an adult, with those first couple pieces of music containing an almost child-like innocence, the “mini album” getting darker and dirtier as puberty set in, and then their last full length, 2010’s “Romance Is Boring” parlaying that growth into young adulthood. What are some of your main goals between the ages of 18-25? Drinking and fucking tend to be the two most easily associated with the era, and that last album had both, though much more of the latter. It should come as no surprise then that the band decided to title its fourth (or third, depending on what qualifies) long player “Hello Sadness”. You get one quick guess as to what the general mood of the record is.
For those playing the home game, if you said the mood of “Hello Sadness” was sadness, you would be correct. You win the award for Most Obvious Correct Answer. And while the lyrics do paint an overwhelming portrait of sad-sackery, the good news is the music doesn’t fully embrace that same sentiment. Listening to a bunch of heartbroken or suicidal songs in which the tempo goes overly heavy will likely put you in the same sort of mood the album evokes, and not a lot of people want to listen to albums that bring them down both verbally and sonically. That’s one of the biggest hurdles “Romance Is Boring” faced, and though the band handled the darker stuff extraordinarily well, that record dragged much more than it soared. The cute keyboard-spattered “By Your Hand” opens “Hello Sadness” and it it immediately pushes back against the downer vibe on the last record with one of the band’s catchiest melodies to date. The lyrics may be all about hoping a girl will kill you rather than break your heart, but the instruments bounce along with such zeal it almost makes the experience seem pleasant. The full band sing-along of the chorus is classic Los Campesinos! by now, and while it’s not the sugar rush of a past opener like “Death to Los Campesinos!”, it maintains a bright appeal in spite of its morbidity. Even the title track, with the sentiment of, “goodbye courage/hello sadness” chugs along like a modern adaptation of 80s dark-tinged pop classics, the bass line akin to some New Order gems and Gareth’s vocals take on an almost Robert Smith-esque quality paired next to his Dickensian imagery.
Speaking of Gareth’s vocals, he’s matured them along with the band, pulling away from some of his trademark yelps and not trying to stretch his range beyond what he’s capable of. The result is better control and power, a wise choice given he’s not sharing lead singing duties as much since Aleks left the band (this is their first record without her). While Gareth has always been a fine singer given the outpouring of dramatic shit he spouts off from song to song, this is the first Los Campesinos! record where all his vocals emote in exactly the way they need to. He spits fire on “Hate for the Island”, adopts a snotty punk attitude on “Songs About Your Girlfriend” and is frought with worry on “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”. Given that this record was written and recorded reportedly after Gareth suffered a pretty big break-up, these songs are probably that much more personal to him and you can largely hear it in his voice. It’s a shame then that his lyrics aren’t quite what they used to be. For a band that once even titled a song “We Are All Accelerated Readers” and then pretty much proved it with hyper-literate witticisms that commented on eveything from Rousseau to “Jane Eyre”, there’s a certain sense that things are a bit blander and less clever on “Hello Sadness”. The cleverness factor may be down a bit, but the smart wordplay largely remains intact. It’s difficult to criticize lines such as, “Your body above me, sobbing down/My cheeks wet from your tears/They extinguish each of the burning thread veins/Flow down to my ears/Now they rest in two tiny reservoirs/That overfed the wedded canals” when the images they conjure up are impressively powerful. Even the most depressing lines about death are made that much more engaging to listen to because of the way they’re phrased. “My memories are sepia/But the photograph is not/An historian is fucking with them/As deadly as garrotte”, he sings on “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”. You might need a dictionary to truly understand what he’s getting at, but that’s also part of what makes the lyrics so damn good. Some might argue the use of such challenging vocabulary is really Gareth’s way of bragging about how smart he is, but by that same token none of the classical authors felt the need to “dumb down” their words. That’s not to say Gareth is on par with classic literature, but most assuredly nobody else is penning songs quite like him these days.
Perhaps the reason that Los Campesinos! toned down their sillier bits is because like any full grown adult the days of goofing around are largely over. Then again you’re only as young as you feel, and we all probably know a few people over the age of 40 that could use a bit of maturity. It’s not like the band is all of a sudden filled with middle-aged adults either. They’ve yet to reach their late 20s but come across like they’re twice that age. Have they grown up too much, too fast? Their albums have all logically progressed from one into the next, but would they have been wrong to have stayed lighter and poppier for another record or two? Probably not, and given that “Hello Sadness” is a relatively serious adult album, where can they go from here? That will probably be most dependent on whatever headspace Gareth is in at the time. At least on this latest effort they’ve found their pop edge again. There really hasn’t been much to call single-worthy on the band’s last two efforts (even as there have been singles), which is why “By Your Hand” and the title track seem a little like a sonic regression to their earlier days. The overall balance of the record is a little off too, with the front half bringing far more energy and hooks while the back half is a more subdued and depressing affair. The key transitional moment and true crux of the album comes via “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)”, a five minute electric guitar-heavy excursion that is both harsh and gorgeous, lively and stagnant. It stands as a great testament to just how far Los Campesinos! have come in four short years, and is also a gentle reminder that as much as it crushes our spirits, sometimes sadness is worth welcoming into our lives.