The Mark Kozelek Award for Slow Dancing With Grouchy Commuters
By Robin Smith | 13 December 2013
London Grammar :: “Strong”
“Strong” serves the same purpose any number of Beach House songs did last year. I used Bloom (2012), back then, as a way of slow burning through London’s underground on trips home, unwinding on my way to the next tube ride by pretending I was basking in the world’s first open-world spa. It’s a ritual I’ve come to necessitate from whatever band writes a song slow and sweet enough in their given year, and when I pass through London tomorrow—a city I will forever think is utterly ridiculous, because why, nameless commuter, are you reading a newspaper you disagree with while taking an escalator—I will play this song, hear Hannah Reid’s boisterous voice, and keep the whole scene for myself.
London Grammar sound completely different from Beach House, of course. Instead of making steamy dream pop, their sound falls between the maudlin love songs of Daughter, whose record is more graceful, but also more humourless (put them back to back and tell me which sounds brighter: If You Wait, or If You Leave?), and the big impulsive sound perpetuated by recent M83. For all their sparkly-clean pop grandeur, though, London Grammar have the affections of slowcore at heart, stopping time for their listener and no one else. I’m sure their music could go hard in a crowd of devoted fans, but the twinkling guitar and laboured piano chords that carry “Strong” into its epic territory belong to one person among the hundreds. It sounds best surrounded by a bunch of strangers who aren’t hearing it, and soundtracks best the long gruesome stride through your busy city. Which is why I want British soap operas to stop co-opting it for their pretty landscape shots—that’s not where “Strong” happens. It happens in the headphones.
“Strong” is executed to its maximum dramatic potential, mixed to fill any room it’s listened to in, and given a loudness that suits its private vibe: I’ve more than occasionally felt compelled to take my headphones out and check if it’s playing to everyone. And then there’s Reid’s strong-as-shit voice. It’s evoked comparisons to Jessie Ware, a fellow member of the Disclosure family, and fittingly; both have fronted pristine-sounding records on the periphery of personal turmoil, and both are responsible for keeping them tethered. Reid’s voice, like Ware’s, is unyielding, sustaining notes as if time can wait up for her. The difference is in the backdrop; Devotion (2008) is the kind of unsettlingly slick record you’d play to yourself at home, but If You Leave is a walking-home game, and “Strong” is a commuter’s lullaby. Let’s chill with the bankers. Or not.