Those with fond memories of sometime Bjork collaborator Leila’s masterful lo-fi, futuristic bedroom soul may find themselves shocked by much of her fourth album U&I. Her support slots at the London shows on Björk’s Volta tour, which essentially saw her playfully layering sheets of abrasive electronic sound, did however offer some hint of her current direction. Much of the music on U&I is considerably harsher and more unforgiving. Although it sees her working with just one vocalist, Mt Sims, for the first time (all three of her previous albums have featured a plurality of voices), it seems a good deal less based on the tools of conventional songcraft.
Whereas much of Leila’s previous output has felt spacious and minimal, U&I feels like something of an onslaught. All Of This not only features an insistent, distorted bassline, but also all manner of bleeps and manipulated sounds, as if ideas were being bounced off the studio walls. Welcome To Your Life continues the direct, forceful and provocative approach. Later on, the brief interlude Interlace serves up a modest platter of punishing white noise. Perhaps the most overwhelming and unnerving of all is Colony Collapse Disorder, that creates a dark, threatening effect from manipulations in rhythm, texture, sound and volume. Subtlety is clearly not the name of the game this time around.
Nevertheless, Leila’s willingness to find fresh sonic spaces should surely be admired. As good as Courtesy Of Choice and Blood, Looms and Blooms (albums two and three respectively) were, they did feel like reiterations of an approach she had already perfected on her first attempt with the miraculous Like Weather. That the opening third of U&I has the energy of rave and the attitude of punk not only comes as a surprise, but it also comes as a refreshing reinvention.
The album is not without its moments of reflection however. The perfectly titled In Consideration mixes mechanistic soundscapes with the haunting one man choir vocals of Mt Sims. It’s probably too early for Leila to have been influenced by the likes of Julia Holter or Julianna Barwick here, but the track certainly seems to be coming from a similar compositional vantage point. The album is sequenced carefully to make this like an oasis of calm at its heart.
Perhaps less surprisingly, the instrumental Eight incorporates some of the recent love for Vangelis that can be heard in the work of Zomby or Kuedo. It’s beguiling for a time, at least until the more stereotypical Game Boy-esque sounds emerge towards the end of the track, creating what must be an intentionally jarring effect. It doesn’t quite work.
The track which make more upfront use of the Mt Sims vocals come across as akin to a more electronic take on TV On The Radio. The best of these is probably (Disappointed Cloud) Anyway – the closest this album comes to an accessible, infectious moment. It’s no surprise that this track was selected as an online taster for the album, even if it is not entirely representative. Boudica almost offers another moment of sweet relief, its insistent four to the floor pulse and repetitive synth figure almost making it sound like a contemporary club classic. Yet Leila can’t resist thickening out the sound until the heart of the piece is virtually subsumed.
U&I is very unlikely to introduce to a wider audience. In fact, it may well alienate at least a part of her existing one. It does, however, take her into what is fresh territory for her as a musician and producer. Her resolute refusal to return with more of what might be expected from her shows artistic vision and courage. Whilst it might not always be a pleasurable listen, there’s something visceral and exciting about this music.