Review | The Only End I Foresee

Los Campesinos! is a reliable band. The way they're going, I don't know if i'll get tired of them, on record or in concert. It's not that they've been keeping pace with a radical evolutionary arc, but their formula is a direct hit on my music sensibilities. Bone-deep guitar hooks, intricately anecdotal lyrics, a twee sheen with a punk snarl -- if this is your wheelhouse, Los Campesinos! never disappoints. They say you should be the bands you want to hear, but more and more LC is my ideal.

HELLO SADNESS is their 4th record, and, yeah, it's good. There are some noticeable differences if you're that deep into Los Campesinos! analysis. If not, you'll probably like it as much as you liked 2010's ROMANCE IS BORING. Some of these changes can't be helped. LC! is very much an ensemble band and since their last album, they've lost 3 members (two on good terms and one under mysterious circumstances.) The holes have been filled, but the calibration is different. As good as it gets, I wonder if it's missing something that was in their last 3 LPs.

Your tongue the tide, your lips the shore
I am the jetsam overboard
Goodbye courage
(Track 3, Hello Sadness)

Early Los Campesinos! was defined by their sugary sweet sound, like the interplay between male & female voices, the glockenspiel, or their madcap pop punk riffs. They've gotten progressively darker with every album, deliberately moving away from cutesy twee, but they still hit the emotional center that twee gets its energy from. On this album more than any other, they're firmly in some kind of indie rock/alternative space, dropping a ton of energy, but picking up a ton of emotional gravity. Things are different now. Nothing continues the energy of "Plan A" or "I Warned You: Do Not Make An Enemy Of Me" from ROMANCE IS BORING. Nothing takes the baton from the playfulness of "All Your Kayfabe Friends" from WE ARE BEAUTIFUL, WE ARE DOOMED.

It's only hope that springs eternal
And that's the reason why
This dripping from my broken heart is never running dry

You notice the lack of Aleks deeply on this album. Although Kim Campesinos! filled her spot, she doesn't get nearly as much vocal spotlight as Aleks did. She gets her own lines for one song, but is otherwise doing backup work underlining Gareth's vocals. It's still good work, but the omission is glaring, especially on "Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)" where Gareth seems to be doing a duet with himself. Maybe 2009 era LC! would have composed the song the same way, but knowing how things have changed, it's hard not to wonder how the whole tone could have changed.

I really know now what I thought I knew then
You can lead a horse to water, but it won't drown itself
(Track 5, Every Defeat A Divorce)

That's this year's "All's well that ends / I suppose" from ROMANCE. Which was last year's "Miserabilia to show the kids" from DOOMED. I am a sucker for corrupting common phrases into darker, twisted forms.

The only other slight negative I would mention is that the writing has lost some of its appealing danger. The most exciting and humorous Los Campesinos! songs are boldly honest. They're very specific and detailed, recounting convincingly real anecdotes of complicated relationships that might leave you feeling embarrassed for Gareth. Those lines and melodies are tattooed on my mind: "I have broken down into the naked breasts of a newly ex, I can only guess that she thinks about it when she touches herself" or "Every girl I ever kissed I was thinking of a pro footballer" or "I taught myself the only way to get along in love is to like the other slightly less than you get in return."

It's partially the voyeuristic thrill of being let in so brazenly, sure, but that's not the entire appeal. The best LC! songs are dangerously specific and grounded in the social world. Not only is that rarer on HELLO SADNESS, but the general air of audacity is tempered. "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope" is a decent go, but it's entirely in metaphor. It's got the detail -- meticulous description of a black bird eating the singer alive -- but it's not relatable or concrete enough to latch onto. It's a very well described metaphor for, I guess, internal darkness or fear of death. But there's no urgency to it.

Take a body to water, take a body to tundra
Just take me with you as well
(Track 8, To Tundra)

That's about all I can muster on the half-negative front. Those few points aside, this album is still so good and now I can gush with bias now that the constructive criticism is out of the way. Can I talk about "Songs About Your Girlfriend?"

You do not like us cause your girlfriend likely does
And all your friends agree on her soft spot for me
I'll have my hard hands over her soft spots
soon you will see
If you want a list of her favorite bits
The next time I am free, quite comprehensively,
I will scrawl them down to you as an apology
(Track 2, Songs About Your Girlfriend)

This is so good and full of purely spiteful attitude. It starts off as a pretty blatant fuck you -- if that's all it was, it might even be off-putting to a lot of the audience. But, LC! have several doctorates in painting relationship portraits, so there's always extra dimensions:

Songs I've written about your girlfriend
Are just songs of spite since it came to an end
Cause I never made her smile like that
And she never made me smile right back
Although I always made her purr like a cat
She said I never made her smile like that

The main "character" in Los Campesinos! songs always run the gauntlet of roles: the victim, the heartbreaker, the cheater, the betrayed, the pursuer, the masochist, the sadist. Sometimes they take on several of these roles at once and create a convincing real portrait of what it means to be too self aware in a relationship. So here we have a relationship wrecker, the other man, who is also at once the heart broken & bitter narrator, because their connection was purely physical and temporary.

Meanwhile, Gareth mocks and apologizes in the same verse, like someone who just can't let a good concession stand alone without flipping you off on the back end. It's wonderful. "I never made her smile like that," and you imagine the other guy feeling somewhat heartened and consoled. But it can't stay kind: "Although I always made her purr like a cat." Just to twist the knife in case you were feeling too good, you fucker. Sure, it's mean, but as an entertaining premise, it works because it's completely understandable: This is someone acting out and causing pain to others out of misdirected bitterness and a heart in ruins. If it's not something we all do, it's something we all feel compelled to do, but how often do you find songs like that?

That's only my 2nd favorite song on the album, which is full of hearty tunes. "Baby I Got The Death Rattle" is a meditation on death, but is saved from the detached metaphorical weirdness by linking it to relationships and filling it up with some clutch shifts. "Life Is A Long Time" is something I've been saying for years now, and it takes the form of a group clap-off in tribute to dire outlooks.

Life, life is a long time, too long to my mind,
too long by far
Between my waterfalls and your landslides
There's cartography in every scar
(Track 4, Life Is A Long Time)
You, you are an angel, and that's why you pray
And I am an ass and that's why I bray
If you were tomorrow, I'd be today
And this is the end
(Track 9, Baby I Got The Death Rattle)

But the absolute fucking masterpiece of the album is, both fortunately and unfortunately, the first pre-release single "By Your Hand." It's perfectly catchy, universally stirring, and full of detailed story. It is definitely among the best songs they've ever made. For all the talk I had about Gareth on all the vocals and writing away from his strengths, he absolutely carries this entire song. He sings constantly shifting melodies, dipping in and out of baritone and completely dances around the trumpet swells and clap-a-long beat.

By your hand is the only end I foresee
I have been dreaming you've been dreaming about me
(Track 1, By Your Hand)

Chris Sims postulates that great songs stake their claim in the first few seconds. I'm not counting the keyboard blips, just this chorus that starts, intercepts, and ends the song. They know they've stumbled upon a treasure chorus, so they make sure to get their mileage out of it. There's value in restraining a hook, but when it's this good, you want to save your listener the trouble of rewinding.
Los Campesinos! and the vague idea of twee pop in general is based on being plainly and unselfconsciously emotional. There are no fronts of apathy or attempts at restraint, there's just a completely dug deep, well earned expression of something true. Sometimes that takes the form of a girl vomiting on you. But before you can get wrapped up in the anti-romance climax, you are hit with a singular, beautiful and moving line that is soon to be on many a hot girl's Tumblr:

Your fingertips leave marks and graze
I lay you down atop the baize
I'm not sure if it's love anymore
But I've been thinking of you fondly for sure
Remember what your heart is for

I think part of the reason I love Los Campesinos! is that they're always expressing these tough social nuggets in ways that most artists don't. Even though I love the Saddle Creek school of catharsis, Los Campesinos! does it so sharply and incisively - they untangle knots in your brain. What was once a weird, tentative, and indefinable thing is suddenly a catchy verse. And they do this over and over and over again.