opinion by BENJI TAYLOR
THE NEXT BIG THING. Such a label serves at once as a curse and a blessing, for messianic crowns come studded with thorns, and chalices emblazoned with this inscription are often tainted with poison. Custodians of the title can implode under the weight of expectation, or fail to bottle further the magic of that first hit single.
Not so for English art-rock trio London Grammar. Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman have been careful to avoid the dangers of over-exposure in the nine months since first single “Hey Now” seared itself into the collective consciousness of the blogosphere, instead releasing work after work of gradually escalating beauty from the safety of the shadows.
That was until Disclosure dropped their album Settle, at which point London Grammar vocalist Hannah Reid came to wider attention on sweeping album closer “Help Me Lose My Mind,” where her spine-tingling soulful singing combined with the wash of swooning synths and downbeat 80’s percussion. It will come as no surprise to fans of this track to learn that Reid’s magnificent vocals are integral to London Grammar’s sound, serving as the perfect accompaniment to the band’s discreet production and minimalist instrumentation.
The same words will be used ceaselessly to describe Reid’s vocals in coming weeks – “haunting”, “brooding”, “ethereal”. Yet none of these terms adequately conveys the way her voice melts and evolves to suit the temperament and melody of each song on If You Wait, flowing like molten gold on “Interlude”, or acquiring the varied textures of a vast swathe of satin and silk on “Nightcall”. Her vocal is always underscored by an enduring brittle beauty and an underlying otherworldliness, as if she honed her craft singing amidst the forests of Lothlórien, or some far-flung corner of Westeros.
Though her voice may be otherworldly, the thematic concerns of the album are very much rooted in this world – youth’s timeless preoccupation with finding not only love but the nature of ourselves. These soundscapes and the lyrics that populate them are characterised by broken hearts, fractured dreams and people falling in and out of love. Perhaps the most telling lyric of all is on “Wasting My Young Years”, with the heart-breaking concession of “I’ve heard it takes some time to get it right”.
The album’s first single and opening track “Hey Now” has lost none of its grandeur and remains as devastatingly beautiful as it did when released at the tail-end of 2012. It’s the main track on If You Wait that justifies the comparisons with The XX – especially in terms of how the band forges the space and atmosphere from reverb-tinged percussion and Rothman’s discreet, almost-spectral guitars. “Wasting My Young Years” further showcases how perfectly the band balance the interplay between Reid’s vocal and the twinkling keys and subtle instrumentation that floats around it, allowing it to drive the song and dictate proceedings but never once to feel overbearing.
Latest single “Strong” mirrors the intricately weaved threadwork of sounds and elaborately crafted sense of space showcased on the opening track, but utilises a more hypnotic vocal from Reid that manages to sound simultaneously heart-rending and inspiring. Elsewhere “Interlude” is as refined a paean to love and devotion as you will hear all year, matching dual melancholic piano lines and subtly building percussion to Reid’s sublime wistful singing.
There is not a single weak track, but amongst the many highlights is a spellbinding cover of French house artist Kavinsky’s “Nightcall”. There’s a particularly gorgeous moment around the two-minute-thirty-second mark when the instrumentation is peeled away and, for a few seconds, you think the song will end – before Reid’s dazzling vocal is re-introduced amidst a haze of swirling keys. It’s nothing short of transcendent. Also, the flawless sequencing leads to an album that begs you to drink in its beauty by listening to it from beginning to end.
This is an enthralling, stunning, deeply emotive album that perfectly marries understated electronica to sublime vocals and melodies. In a year dominated by titanic LPs, London Grammar have not only made the most perfectly formed debut album of the year – they’ve made one of the best LPs, period. [A-]