When the first sounds of Los Campesinos! hit the eardrums in 2007 with a racket of twinkling xylophones, rushing drums and shouty lyrics, it felt like a twee-volution of sorts for the indie scene. Artists with sonic similarities were grouped together, including Johnny Foreigner, Slow Club, Sky Larkin and Dananananaykroyd. For the more successful of the ‘originals’ however, evolution had to be swift to stoke the fires of interest among a genre boom.
But Los Campesinos!’ musical growth has been both critically acclaimed and seemingly effortless, so much so that Hello Sadness, their fourth album, feels almost business as usual. The Cardiff seven-piece are now almost the only band in a dense genre whose record factory has been both prolific and quality in its production.
Beneath the surface of Hello Sadness, though, is a seamless, at first unrecognisable change of tack. While it builds on the roundness of sound that surfaced on Romance Is Boring, it also nods to some of the trademarks that were lost in the acerbic-tongued harshness of that album’s subject matter. Regaining some of the innocence of the debut Hold On Now, Youngster, the tracks shuffle to make room for those chanting choruses and twinkling percussion. But the intelligence is not lost, nor is the matter-of-fact storytelling; there are simply fewer tales of vomiting on football pitches and naughty rumpy pumpy in forbidden, holy places.
That’s not to say talk of passions brief and anguished love affairs has suddenly been curtailed. Far from it, as album opener and inaugural single By Your Hand is a classic Los Campesinos!-style tale of fumbles in the dark when boy meets girl. There are hooky keyboards that hark back to earlier years, but the drums are more considered, the lack of female vocals noticeable for their relative absence, and the sound altogether fuller.
Songs About Your Girlfriend feel just as instantly glorious. Blistering drums and excitable xylophones build to match the feverish lyrics that speak of cavorting with a friend’s girlfriend, before the seven play conscience through the gleeful chant, “Oh your mask is slipping”. It’s also here where unexpected late-80s, early-‘90s riffs make a cameo, later filtering into Life Is A Long Time – a track that feels unlike anything the band has attempted before – and Hello Sadness, which is underpinned by New Order hooks and rhythms. Its production has a startling clarity, so much so that it’s easy to forget there’s a storyline to delve into among the violins that speak of angst, whipped into an Arcade Fire-esque maelstrom of instruments.
The band’s atmospheric, pit of the stomach-hitting segway about death arrives in the form of Hate For The Island, where Gareth’s descriptive image-making comes to the fore. This is all the more transparent on The Black Bird, The Dark Slope – a frank explanation of the bits of his personality he’s most ashamed of.
Tundra is perhaps the last point on the album where Los Campesinos! truthfully reach the bar they’ve now set for themselves. The impact of Every Defeat Is A Divorce’s sensitive, pitter-pattering strings is lost by see-sawing guitars, while the remaining two tracks feel like the album deflates, rather than bursting into a finish. Even their rousing choral crescendos can’t quite match the earlier delights.
By virtue of this, it’s not a perfect album. Hello Sadness perhaps lacks the consistency of others that preclude it. But the production is polished, clearer and possesses new depths that haven’t been heard from the band before. And this shows that they have become more accomplished, building on the progress in musicianship that they showed with Romance Is Boring. Lyrically, gone is the amusing petulance, and in its place are tales that tug on the heart strings by creating patchwork mind pictures with words. And when Los Campesinos! hit that sweet spot, the results are stunning.