By Corey Beasley | 13 November 2013
Ah, Los Campesinos!, the Rodney Dangerfield of indie rock. Can’t get no respect. The blame rests at the feet—or, okay, the cute little dot—of that exclamation point, an open-armed invitation to the leagues of bloggers who still slur the band by tagging them as “twee” after hearing the brazenly youthful sugar rush of the group’s debut record, Hold on Now, Youngster (2008). The mistake is understandable, to an extent: Youngster is immensely charming album, one whose energy and earnestness practically ooze from the pimples that likely still dotted the band members’ faces at the time of its recording. But that record, and its darker but similarly-minded follow-up, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (2008), were created by a band that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Not only have they lost several founding and long-time members since its inception in 2006, the band’s songwriting team—guitarist Tom Campesinos! and singer Gareth Campesinos!—have subtly reinvented the group with each subsequent LP.
So, twee? Please. Yes, Gareth used to bang on a glockenspiel, but those days are over. The band’s late output, from 2010’s Romance is Boring through to their best records, 2011’s Hello Sadness and this year’s No Blues, is noisy, deftly controlled, and emotionally complex. It would give Sufjan Stevens nightmares. No Blues follows the palate of the outstanding Hello Sadness in stripping away much of the dissonance Los Campesinos! slathered onto Romance is Boring in a likely attempt to distance itself from its cutesy earlier material. This hard-eyed scouring leaves behind songs more exposed, unshielded by the protective cloak of arch attitude provided by feedback and squall. In other words, the songs here have to earn their anthemics, relatively free as they are from tricks of tempo—“fast means FEELINGS!”—and studio tinkering.
And do they ever. Tom incorporates fresh elements into the band’s sound, with pitch-shifted or otherwise filtered vocals popping up on several tracks, along with bass-heavy synth textures you’d expect to find on a cloud rap record. But he isn’t grasping at the “growth” electronic instruments supposedly signify for a rock band in its later career. Rather, the thud of an 808 on “As Lucerne/The Low” or the arpeggiated synth on “Cemetery Gaits” are integrated so thoroughly into the compositions as to seem entirely natural, welcome textural notes to tongue along with the songs’ indelible melodies.
Tom has a preternatural ability to squeeze a hook out of any instrument—check the way the guitar hooks of opener “For Flotsam” segue into the hook of the pitch-shifted chorus behind Gareth’s vocals, which shifts into the hooks of the bass octaves in the bridge. The track is a tackle box. But back to Dangerfield for a moment, and respect where respect is due—why isn’t this pop songwriter lauded in the indie world in the same breath as, say, an Ed Droste or a Noah Lennox? Yes, the twee label still haunts Tom and his band, but even though Los Campesinos! has matured well past that sound, its primary DNA still springs from relatively unfashionable progenitors. Tom, for example, mentioned Jimmy Eat World as a point of reference for the writing process of No Blues, and Los Campesinos!’s build-and-release structures, group-shouted choruses, and general heart-on-sleeve demeanor all find their recent foundation in punk-pop and whatever wave of emocore we’re onto now. And to those who shudder at the idea of a band on their iPod sharing any sonic resemblance to something that could reasonably be played in a Hot Topic, fair enough. But, in the same breath: give me a break. No, No Blues doesn’t have much of the punk edge that grants us adults full sanction to breathlessly emote along with our stereos—hello, Titus Andronicus; how are you, Fucked Up—but it so successfully wraps ugly and honest feelings in a sophisticated pop packaging that resisting its charms on an aesthetic level seems, well, purely adolescent.
Vocalist Gareth Campesinos!, at least as responsible as Tom for the band’s sound and attitude, sings unabashedly about love, loss, sex with others, and sex with himself. He’s become one of the sharpest lyricists in rock music, blending humor and pathos with clever wordplay and vivid imagery to signature effect. You could read his words on the page and know you were reading a Gareth-penned song, which is a compliment you can’t pay to many rock songwriters today. His voice—the physical one, the one coming from somewhere deep in his chest now—has improved by a factor of about three million from those first two LPs, as well, less a teenage yawp now than a surprisingly resonant croon. Both voice and pen are in top form on No Blues, which is full of top-quality Garethisms. “I was the first match struck at the first cremation,” he sings on fantastic early single “What Death Leaves Behind,” “you were my shallow grave—I’ll tend you as a sexton! / If you’re the casket door that’s being slammed upon me / I’ll be a plague cross painted on your naked body.” It’s all there: Morrissey-grade melodrama, tongue-twisting syntax, lightning-bright imagery. Gareth may be our finest chronicler of unpretentious, self-aware twenty-something malaise. Yes, there are bigger problems in the world than your own, but fuck if you’re still upset she never called.
Gareth, though he consistently claims he writes his lyrics at the last minute, always manages to weave a cohesive thread through each record’s language. On No Blues, he’s death-obsessed, packing the record full of funereal and corporeal imagery that grounds his lovelorn fantasies in seriously earthbound territory. Take, for instance, this movingly heretical bit from “For Flotsam”: “And I saw God in the bathroom / I baptised him in sick / Embraced him around his cistern / ‘C’est la mort!, enough of this!’” Elsewhere, on “Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)” he turns his character’s suicide attempt into a self-deprecating epiphany about how the world isn’t cruel but merely ambivalent, as the narrator makes his leap from a bridge only to notice along the fall that no one—not even the birds along the shore—seems to notice his grand gesture. “A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man” features a delightfully evil revenge fantasy, and “The Time Before the Last Time” sees Gareth mourning potential sons and daughters washed down the shower drain after a bit of self love. As ever, his songs are at once funny and poignant, his humor a fine enough dyke to keep an unwelcome flood of self-seriousness at bay.
Along with death, Gareth focuses throughout No Blues on the other constant in life: football. He peppers the record with references to the game and its athletes, and one gets the sense that even if the insider references will be lost on most Americans (and count me definitively among that crowd), they will likely be lost on most English soccer fans, too. The litany of references and names Gareth drops in “Glue Me” could keep you Googling for an afternoon, but good news: you don’t need to know what a “Yeboah volley” is to understand Gareth’s imagery. “People laugh, they’ll call it folly / But we connected like a Yeboah volley”? Works for me. “I requested a room with a view / In the middle of a war between me and you / And leave with all the dignity / Of missed Panenka penalty”? I can assume that’s not a very good thing. In other words, Gareth’s lyrics are so sharp and so emotionally precise that the football jargon here becomes textural just like Tom’s electronic experiments, details that enrich if you understand their references, but ones that do plenty of work even if you don’t have a sports almanac nearby.
The finest songs here are as solid as any other rock music you’ll find in 2013. From “Cemetery Gaits,” with its driving rhythm buoyed by acoustic guitars and Gareth’s masterfully controlled delivery, to the fist-pumping balladry of “As Lucerne/The Low” and its ode to the perverse pleasure of owning your sadness, to the cathartic “What Death Leaves Behind” and epic sweep of “Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary),” No Blues again and again proves itself one of the smartest, most affecting guitar records of the year. The band will likely never be lauded as blog royalty, and it will certainly never be embraced as “cool” by those who equate the word with “disaffected,” but that’s fine. No blues here. This is a record to make the transition from youth to adulthood a bit easier, and Los Campesinos! itself seems to be managing that shift more deftly than any band in recent memory. Death to twee.