Lianne La Havas’ third album is self-titled and self-stylised. It is difficult for an artist to achieve sonic cohesion without the tracks becoming stagnant, but La Havas has managed to hew an album that feels cohesive and constantly in motion – a living piece of vibrant art that remains both personal to the singer-songwriter yet just as cathartic for the love-struck listener.
It is obvious that La Havas had a clear vision for this album on both the sound and the track progression, which thematically takes us on an arc of a love affair. Her voice has always been powerful, but the more natural tone to this album allows her characteristically raw voice to sparkle. As it’s been five years since the release of her last album, Blood, this new project heightened expectation; to which it emphatically lives up.
First track Bittersweet is all soft instrumental towards the beginning, dropping out occasionally to let La Havas’ voice simmer in the first half and soar towards the end, but it only restrains itself to teach you that she’s fully in control. It doesn’t necessarily give you what you expect from the first few seconds, but rather what you didn’t know you needed – it’s teasing, tantalising and electric. At times melancholy, at others effervescent, her vocals make you praise her musical (and personal) integrity for bothering to do anything more than recording voice notes of her shopping list, which might have been almost as mesmerising. Nowhere is this clearer than in Out Of Your Mind, a halfway interlude consisting of soft, lilting vocals layered on top of one another. It is short, with none of the sharp, visceral lyrics elsewhere on the album – it has no lyrics at all – but it showcases La Havas’ creative confidence. Not only are the vocals outstanding, the production is clever, seeming spontaneously free and skilfully co-ordinated all at once.
This album also revisits a cover La Havas has been performing live since 2012: Radiohead‘s Weird Fishes. The stripped back and somewhat more hopeful cover of the In Rainbows favourite is quintessentially soulful, cutting the original’s fluttery tempo in half for a warm, translucent and keys-heavy vibe. The bass is pure blues, with La Havas’ vocals reaching almost epic proportions towards the end. The best part is that it is slippery like a fish; one minute you think there’s absolutely no way this is a cover, it fits so neatly on the album, the next you can still hear the trace of Radiohead’s original, for the cover crescendos in much the same way, with a vibrant instrumental that is as powerful as it is atmospheric. La Havas may have been playing it for eight years, but the studio version feels fresh and luminescent – a cover that informs rather than detracts from the original work surrounding it.
Paper Thin, an already released and praised single, is the musical equivalent to looking through an old stack of sepia stained photographs; both soothing seduction and cutting heartbreak. In the more grown up, shades-of-grey sister to Blood’s Wonderful, La Havas purrs about the overwhelming doubt experienced in both in trying to love somebody who isn’t quite finished with their own healing journey, and yourself. Whilst Blood was loudly self-assured, down to the vibrant pink album artwork, this latest album shows a quiet confidence, seen best in Paper Thin, that comes from knowing you don’t always know everything. It feels intuitive and natural, and when La Havas wants to showcase her powerful vocals, play around with riffs, and explore a more carefree vibe, she does just that.
The best example of this is Can’t Fight, just for how she sings “When did heaven get this heavy?” alone. The intro of fun, beachy guitar drifting into a smooth R&B rhythm was produced and co-written by Mura Masa, and is sonically reminiscent of a more stylised Erykah Badu. It competes with Read My Mind for the most upbeat track of the album, with Read My Mind being the ultimate for the pre-date hype; combining deliciously sensual and layered vocals with bluesy keys, topped with a slight hint of synth, it both lyrically and musically screams thpse defining moments before a relationship becomes clear. The lyrics bounce back and forth between playful “It’s serendipity/I notice you notice me” and cautious “If I look again/Oh, what’s gonna happen then?” with a beat that could come straight from a ’90s R&B playlist.
Green Papaya comes straight off the heels of Read My Mind, and at first this is jarring – it is slower, less instantly easy to connect with, and La Havas’ vocals seem discordant to the soothing, romantic guitar. But its lyrics shine through: “This place I don’t know/no yellow brick road/to follow.” Once you reach the chorus, where the voluptuous bass kicks in, you’re left wondering why you ever doubted a song entitled Green Papaya could be anything over than masterful. And this is the key to La Havas new album: it does not explode in a Technicolor eruption of fireworks. Instead it is the steady joy of rolling over in bed on a warm Sunday, the open window bringing in a soft breeze, and seeing the one you love right next to you.
In short, every song is an earworm, and Lianne La Havas’ third album is haunting in the way only inspiring music can claim to be; a beautiful ghost to soundtrack your life to. It makes perfect sense that this is her first self-titled album, despite being her third overall; it feels like this is the album La Havas was destined to make. Truly captivating.