April 16, 2021

Californian Soil – New Album from London Grammar


Oh my. I am loving this new London Grammar album, Californian Soil. Not only are the songs great, not only are the themes of love and loss universal, but the production is perfect. Real thought has gone into how the songs are arranged, with beats, melodies, and lyrics flowing naturally from one song to the next. There is an arc of increasing emotional intensity to the album. No song seems like filler or out of place; All the songs have a purpose. In some cases, there aren’t breaks between songs which stream from one into another. This creates continuity between groups of songs, forming sets of related music.

“Intro” the lead off song is just that, a slow, dramatic, introduction to the album. It’s reminiscent of progressive rock albums of the 1970s which would start with a short introduction, often instrumental, to set the tone of the album. “Intro” does exactly that, introducing the album’s main themes. It’s a strong start and signals the intent to create a cohesive experience rather than just a bunch of songs.

The first set of songs, “Californian Soil” and “Missing” is classic trip hop from the Massive Attack school. Mid-tempo beats combine with dramatic vocals to create an emotional soundscape. Both deal with destructive behaviors especially a loss of one’s true self. Even so, there is always hope. In “Missing” we hear the protagonist say, “I worry that one day you’ll go missing/And who will notice when you’re gone” but also “I’d love to see you/Happy again/With a love beside you/A house full of friends”. Things may be sad or outright terrible but there is hope for a better time. What else can one say in the midst of a pandemic.

London Grammar than brings us a set of four songs – “Lose Your Head”, “Lord It’s a Feeling”, “How Does It Feel” , and “Baby It’s You” – that mostly dispense with the trip hop structures in favor of ballads and dream pop. Beats vary from slow, mid-tempo to a driving dance beat, but none are too fast or too slow to ruin continuity. These songs move from one into another with limited or no breaks. Arranged this way, they form a suite centered around the emotions of love. Stylistically, these songs are more reminiscent of Arcade Fire and, especially “Baby It’s You”, Florence and the Machine. “How Does It Feel” providing a dream pop/trip hop fusion that harkens back to “Do You Feel It?” from Chaos Chaos. They left my heart pounding.

“Call Your Friends” slows the pace after “Baby It’s You”, providing an intermezzo – a break between sets – that signals a change is coming. That change is not a return to trip hop, not yet anyway. Instead, we get two songs so intense, so laden with emotional quotient, that they are like a punch to the gut. “All My Love” includes traditional folk elements. The closest analog I have is Dead Can Dance, which integrates folk styles from other cultures into rock and pop songs. Here, synths are used to generate a drone sound that might be pipes or a hurdy gurdy. It’s this background hum that provides an underlying sadness to the song. “Talking” uses drums for similar purposes. The song itself is driven by the piano but periodic drumbeats provide emotional punch along with repetitive, almost chanted lyrics such as “Talk to you/Talk to me/Talk to you/Talk to me.”

Just when you think things will get too heavy, we return to trip hop with “I Need the Night.” This echoes the mood and themes from the beginning of the album and provides the set up for the dramatic end of the album. And what an ending. “America” is slow and soulful, using reverb to provide a vivid tone to the music. The song is reminiscent of “Lightning Crashes” from Live’s 1994 Throwing Copper album. It pulls us back to the emotional center of the album, leaving us a little sad and yet not hopeless.

Californian Soil is one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year. It accomplishes something that few albums do, not just today but throughout rock history; It provides a unified vision from start to finish. This is the type of craft that makes albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Springsteen’s Born to Run, or ELP’s Brain Tarkus classics. There is thought given to how the songs interact with each other and how that affects the listening experience.

And that gets to the heart of why this is a great album. It treats the listener to a complete experience. Your heart soars and aches. This music makes you feel something over a sustained period of time. That is what makes music worthwhile. It is why we humans have needed music for tens of thousands of years. To help us connect with our hearts. Californian Soil does this without manipulation. You just feel the pain, disillusionment, hope, and love. I can only hope that enough people will experience this album.