Los Campesinos! are a bit of an indie conundrum, but in the best way possible. Whereas so many artists act like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, the Cardiff rockers are sarcastic, witty, and self-deprecating. In three years, they’ve released three full-length records, including 2010’s Romance Is Boring. The 15-track LP was about as sprawling and abrasive as the band could get, occasionally moving into noise rock and containing song titles like “We’ve Got Your Back (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2)”. So, what’s the best direction to go from here? The polar opposite.
Hello Sadness is a tightly focused album that also counts as the band’s poppy-est to date. Everything’s been mellowed out a little, from the artwork to the melodies to the guitar tones. It’s certainly a seismic shift when compared to their last album, but the results don’t feel out of place. Instead, everything has space to breathe, like the feeling of finally getting out of a crowded subway car.
The best example of Los Campesinos!’ foray into pop-ish melodies is the first single. “By Your Hand” throws in high-pitched, clean guitar patterns with a bouncy keyboard melody, culminating into an eruptive group sing-along chorus. The verses start off a little flat, stripping away too much of the instrumentation and leaving Gareth Campesinos nearly alone in the musical space. But this problem fades out as the seconds tick by.
New territory is also reached on “Hello Sadness”, throwing in gently plucked guitar melodies over twitchy hi-hat hits. Vocally, it’s one of the most emotional tracks Gareth has ever done, with wonderfully aquatic imagery and a chorus that gets across feelings of wanting what you can’t have. (“It’s only hope that springs eternal/and that’s the reason why/this dripping from my broken heart/is never running dry.”) Throw some bittersweet strings under those lines and you’ve got a complete, albeit saddening, package. “Hate for the Island” immediately contradicts itself with sun-soaked guitar melodies and echoing vocals that would be right at home on a desert island. It’s a very atmospheric track with bits of classical piano, and it provides another venue for the band to fully explore in the future.
It’s not all new, though. A couple songs feel at home alongside their older material. “Songs About Your Girlfriend” is full of rapid, slightly distorted guitar strumming, frantic xylophones in the background, and that near-overwhelming sense created by seven musicians going full tilt in a song. “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope” is another riff-rocker where Gareth practically speaks, rather than sings, over the music. While it fits the miles-per-minute pace of the verses, the ascending chorus brings out the band’s ringer, keyboardist and singer Kim Campesinos. Her presence is absolutely refreshing at this late point in the record, her vocals flying up with the instrumentation. Los Campesinos! should make greater use of this secret weapon in the future.
Given the title Hello Sadness, you’d expect a fair amount of melancholy, and you’d be right. Rather than tackling the subject of love with anger and snide, biting comments, this eternal topic is looked at through the lenses of gloom, dejection, and woe. There are feelings of yearning for the unattainable (“Hello Sadness”), the bitter pain of failure (“Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions)”), and the realization of one’s own flaws in a relationship (“Baby I Got the Death Rattle”). The latter is among Gareth’s best work, moving from emotionally descriptive verses like “My blisters black and touch cold/Like a cute stuffed toy bear’s nose/The kind of gift I’d give you/Like a less committed Van Gogh” to hilarious lines that only he could have written, such as “And you, you are an angel/That’s why you pray/And I am an ass/And that’s why I bray.”
Hello Sadness is a thrilling success for the most part. Los Campesinos! have tightened up their sound but haven’t lost any of the musical elements that made them successful in the first place. In computer terms, it’s as if they defragged themselves, freeing up space to explore and move in multiple directions. Given the strides made, perhaps a better title would have been Hello Future.
Essential Tracks: “By Your Hand”, “Hello Sadness”, and “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope”