The nearly two year period between Welsh post-twee indie-rockers Los Campesinos’ third record, the magnificent Romance Is Boring, and their newest record, Hello Sadness, is the longest period between LC! LPs in the band’s existence. In that time lead singer Gareth has further deepened his vocal register, another Campesino has fallen victim to the cruel mistress that is real life (this time violin player Harriet) and the “tweexcore underground” LC were birthed from has swiftly blown up. The world is different now, but not so different as to affect major change in the Campesino formula. Hello Sadness is at once a comment on aging and a reaction to the dearth of messy punk that is flooding the blogosphere: a quieter, zipper up version of the band, for better and worse.
But first, the surprise: is that confidence Gareth is spewing on the record’s boisterous second track, “Songs About Your Girlfriend?” The verses are all cocky bluster, the pudgy frontman practically waving his genitals – “I’ve got my hot hands over her soft spots soon, you will see.” – at a fellow buck. But the puffy chest doesn’t last long, as the chorus blankly states the double-blind in play: “I’ve never made her smile like that, although I always made her purr like a cat.” Thus is Sadness’ contradiction: Gareth is still sad, and the band follows his wallow. But more often than not, that sadness isn’t physical; (mostly) gone is carnal Gareth, the man who complained about listening to too much Explosions in the Sky instead of doing the nasty.
In his place is a twentysomething unsure of his point, of the directions he chose to take at various forks in the road. This Gareth makes heavy-handed metaphors about black birds as his songwriting guilt, or comments that he and his beloved are only perfect in the light. It’s not the typical brutal specificity that we’ve come to expect from a brilliant (yep) lyricist such as Gareth, but his maturity had to happen at a certain point, even if he’s still ear-wormingly co-dependent (the opening track and it’s “die with me” handclaps). Hello Sadness is, then, a Gareth mid-point, a mark between high and low tide of youthful obsessiveness giving way to defeated adult complexity. He’s not all the way there yet, and some of the duller moments of Sadness are strong evidence (“Life Is a Long Time,” which… duh) but that such a pigeonhole-able narrative can evolve is a heartening fact indeed. Plus, he can still turn a wicked phrase – “In the frost I drew a dick for every girl who wouldn’t fuck me/ woke up the next morning to find the frost had bit me,” from the excellent “Baby I Got the Death Rattle.”
It’s obviously not all Gareth, though. The loss of Campesinos staple violin is immediately quantifiable, but there’s enough meat on these bones elsewhere. The problem may lay in the same ballpark as Gareth’s “growth;” these Campesinos were given two years to think about how these songs sound, beyond just the feelings they elicit. And while they still elicit those big emotional moments (album standout “Death Rattle” is insanely complex, but simple in its carnal sweetness), about half of Hello Sadness feels overcooked. Good ideas are tapered down to incompleteness – “Hate for the Island” is so over-edited that it could actually be read as a narrative in the “Lost” universe – and every tempo seems to be driven down to a little bit less than cacophony, which is where Los Campesinos are at their best. They’re still magnificent melodists, and some of the guitar and synth lines caterwauling around the back and foreground of Hello Sadness’ best moments are a reassurance that this isn’t a step backward for the poppers.
But at the same time Hello Sadness can’t be called a step forward either. It feels, instead, like a half-step, an unsure twitch forward into the realm of post-youth indie-pop songwriting while still keep a foot firmly planted in wasted teenagerdom (there is, of course, a reference to vomiting). After the brilliance of Romance is Boring, it seemed like Los Campesinos were ready to move from underdog champions to full indie heroes. Turns out Gareth and company aren’t there yet, but if they commit, Hello Sadness is certainly the precursor to a brilliant future.
Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness tracklist:
- “By Your Hand”
- “Songs About Your Girlfriend”
- “Hello Sadness”
- “Life Is a Long Time”
- “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions)”
- “Hate for the Island”
- “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope”
- “To Tundra”
- “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”
- “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. 2″