The titles of Los Campesinos! albums seem to bounce back and forth between earnest, dramatic emotionalism and cynical snark: We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed then Romance is Boring; Hello Sadness and now No Blues. Or so it seems. Halfway through No Blues, their newest LP, you find the titular lyrics. With a head full of steam, Gareth Campesinos! exclaims: “There is no blues that could sound quite as heartfelt as mine.”
It’s the audacious, almost ridiculous opening line of the song “As Lucerne/The Low.” If you’re any kind of a fan of Los Campesinos! this is your bread and butter. You listen to them for this kind of sadness swagger the way you listen to “Started From the Bottom” to get hype. But it’s not a joke. They avoid any kind of cartoonish sadness that defines the worst tendencies of emo. Through it all, their songs still feel like they ring true and heavy, even if you grin and giggle at first. In this intersection of emo, pop punk, twee and indie, Los Campesinos! have built an incredible catalog that balances these things, and No Blues is simply another great entry in their evolution.
Maintaining their identity and appeal through 5 years of artistic maturation alone is a tremendous challenge. Compounded with the regular lineup changes, there’s no reason LC! should have pulled it off. While No Blues is the furthest they’ve travelled from their stylistic point of origin in Hold On Now Youngster, it’s still all within the same realm. They don’t yelp as often, there is no violin, they don’t sing intricate confessionals – but the attitude is still there, the melodies will still sweep you off your feet, and the can still break you down or make you dance.
A lot of that has to be attributed to the work of Tom Campesinos! and his part in songwriting. Gareth made a point earlier this week on Twitter that a lot of reviews ignore his contributions and focus on lyrics, and in an attempt to avoid being guilty as charged, let me say that he’s right. The anchor that centers them on their identity is the collaboration between the two. Tom Campesinos! impresses with his ability to craft so many high energy power moments, such as the constant downhill rush of “Cemetery Gaits,” that taps into a catharsis equal to Gareth’s best writing. His compositions are the song’s drama and tension.
Gareth, for his part, continues his evolution as a writer. On Hello Sadness, he seemed to be exiting the kind of intricate, confessional anecdotes that used to fill his songs with voyeuristic thrills. Here, it’s solidified. He won’t tell you about crying into the naked breast of a new ex or drawing dicks in the frosted over windows of cars. Now it’s expressed in metaphors like the surreal murder/mutilation in “A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man Lyrics”, or the slow burning “Selling Rope (Swan Dive To Estuary)” that paints a slow motion dive for 6 minutes. The songs are thickened with association football name drops, mythical references and his signature clever writing.
Last year, Gareth told Pitchfork:
There are so many amazing couplets on the Drake album, but if you said some of them in the context of a guitar record, it would be laughable. Within guitar music, there are still people who turn their noses up at somebody who is emoting or even trying to be clever. They say, “Oh, he’s trying too hard.” I’m accused of that all the time– quite possibly rightly sometimes.
On No Blues he doesn’t let that drag him down and embraces it more than ever. On “Glue Me,” he sings: “I’ll be gloomy til they glue me in the arms of she who loves me,” and it’s the best chorus on the entire album. If Ben Gibbard sang it, people would throw tomatoes at him. Gareth has built a context and reputation for this the same way Drake has. It’s what we want from him. When he debuted “Heart of stone, rind so tough it’s crazy / That’s why they call me The Avocado, baby,” I wanted it on a t-shirt. It’s clever but not smug, unrestrained but not undisciplined.
If you want to a great example of how much this band has grown, you need to only look at Gareth’s singing. If you go back to 2008’s “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats” and compare it to his voice on “For Flotsam,” you’ll hear a singer who has grown more confident in his ability to emote beyond scrappy yelps and cutesy shouts. He’s become great at infusing drama and urgency into his voice without cracking it. It’s telling that on a song like “Cemetery Gaits,” the hook that makes you want to sing along is Gareth’s verse, not everyone else’s chorus.
There’s a lot of talk about The End of Indie Rock, and maybe that will come to pass as genre walls continue to be torn down. In the meantime, No Blues is loud, brash, moving and fun; it reminds us what we loved about emotional guitar music in the first place.
Justin Pansacola is a writer living in Los Angeles. At the University of California, Riverside he received his degree in Creative Writing, not English, although he has resigned to the fact that no one cares about the difference. You can follow him on Twitter@wordcore. On some nights he looks up at the moon and wonders if you’re looking at the same moon, too.