Why has London Grammar's 'Californian Soil' been so divisive?
A review of London Grammar's stunning indie-pop third album Californian Soil. Are the mixed reviews justified?
As I wandered from stage to stage at Radio 1's Big Weekend in Glasgow in 2014, I noticed a rather large crowd gathering for this (then) new Nottingham indie-pop act and joined in high anticipation.
London Grammar's debut album If You Wait had only just been released a few months earlier, but it was one that I'd largely ignored for being "too pop" for my liking. What came was a stunning set, singer Hannah Reid blowing everyone away with her stunning and unique vocal style, matched by the group's signature moody textures and big soundscapes.
Fast forward seven years and they've just released their third album Californian Soil (released 16 April). On first listen it was obvious that the indie-pop trio haven't exactly reinvented the wheel with this new record, but continue with an irresistible winning style that will remind you why they're so popular in the first place (4.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify is not to be sniffed at...).
The album opens with 'Intro', a stunning 2 and a half minutes of etherealness, Hannah's otherworldly voice battling against high pitched strings. It's an epic start to kick off proceedings and one which will instantly grab you and pull you into this album.
Title track 'Californian Soil' was my first exposure to this record back in December, forcing me to include the album in my most anticipated albums of 2020. With its deliciously woozy guitar riff and crunched beats, you can't help but feel a nod to Massive Attack's infamous track 'Teardrops'.
Tracks like 'Lose Your Head' and 'Lord It's a Feeling' follow a similar style, emotional ballads packed with textures and atmosphere. 'How Does It Feel' picks the tempo up with its dance vibes, driven by a brilliant groove though it does suffer from repetitiveness. It might be seen as too cynically pop for some, hardly a surprise considering it was produced by Steve Mac who has written big hits like 'Shape of You' for Ed Sheeran and 'Rockabye' for Clean Bandit.
'Baby It's You' is the sweetest and most blissful song on the record. It's a romantic synth-pop track with Balearic dance vibes which they worked on with London electronic producer George Fitzgerald. A stunning effort and easily the highlight of the album. It's immediately followed by another highlight, 'Call Your Friends' where Hannah longs for her partner to be by her side ("So can you call all your friends baby/ tell them to find other plans").
The album finishes on 'America' where Hannah declares "all of our time chasing America/ but she never had a home for me". In an interview with Zane Lowe on Apple Music, she described the song as "a goodbye to all the songs that I thought I wouldn't write because I wasn't sure if I was cut out for the (music) industry or...my own personal American dream". It's a stunning, down-tempo finish ensuring we leave the record satisfied and able to reflect on an extremely pleasant journey from start to finish.
Having said all of that, Californian Soil has so far been a divisive album with criticisms around the lack of departure in sound and lyrical vagueness.
These are both very valid criticisms and it's hard to deny them. But for me, you can't ignore the brilliant flow of the record and the polished production which showcases Hannah Reid's stunning voice. The cinematic soundscapes on offer are seriously impressive, a statement of intent from the band. That only four of the tracks here don't feature an orchestra speaks volumes too for the grandiosity they're aspiring to.
Big props also go to the stunning intensity of the music and the big radio-friendly hooks on many of the tracks. It really is no surprise that tracks like 'Baby It's You', 'Lose Your Head' and 'How Does It Feel' have been picked up by Radio 1 and given constant airplay. Super catchy, well-produced pop songs with heart.
The criticisms are also clear to see too. Many reviews have bemoaned the unambitious blandness of some tracks. The big pop choruses on some of the tracks, as well as the repetitiveness and vague lyricism, may also disengage people who've come into the album thinking it's an alternative one.
At 44 minutes you leave the record just about satisfied, though had it ran on a track or two longer it may have been a different story! Thankfully Californian Soil is saved in many of these criticisms by the textures and soundscapes the trio produce from track to track meaning you're able to forgive its shortcomings.
Hannah Reid's powerful and haunting vocals leave such a lasting impression time and after time. It's an impressive effort but not without its flaws. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt this time!