Los Campesinos! first gained notice in what seems like a different world, and as a result, hold varying significance depending on who you talk to, certainly more beloved in their native U.K. than here in the U.S. In 2008, when the band released their first and second LPs, indie was Drake-big, yet even in that climate, Los Campesinos! still struggled. But those 800 or 900 fans that lived in every major city kept them afloat, barely, as their history has been one of a slow trickling away of bandmates, sometimes replaced, sometimes not, surely not leaving because of the fortune rock music was making them.
Now on their fifth LP in six years, and down to six members (three originals), Los Campesinos!’s No Blues follows what would be considered their most universally ignored album, Hello Sadness. The band’s obsession with death, breakups, doom and darkness almost could be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, within the first listen of No Blues, something becomes apparent whether you’re a fan or a casually interested party: the band has made its best album yet.
It’s 2013. Lines like “There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine,” with the last word extended in a flushed-face bellow, aren’t likely to fall on the same sympathetic ears Los Campesinos! found in their early days. But the sentiment is the band’s reason for being, connecting in the tradition of their heroes, ranging from Pavement to The Smiths to Sonic Youth, and presuming that Gareth David’s voice and insights belong amongst the greats. Four albums in, it would have been hard to make that argument, but No Blues is the album that should change how Los Campesinos! is regarded—if not commercially, than critically.
Maturity wouldn’t have much place in a conversation about LC!’s early work, where David was noted for his bloggy language, inaccurately labeled twee because there was a sort of preciousness to the band. Song titles included “My Year in Lists,” “You, Me, Dancing” and “This Is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics,” and not until “The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future” on third album Romance Is Boring did a light at the end of the tongue-in-cheek tunnel appear.
Maturity, though, is a chief characteristic of No Blues. David (notably going by his actual name rather than Gareth Campesinos these days) hasn’t gotten any less wordy. In fact with the cheerleading chant-alongs largely absent (with key exception being the use of literal cheerleaders on “Avocado, Baby”), David has plenty of room to add more lyrics, as detailed and precise as ever, a true pleasure to delve into, play Where’s Waldo with the soccer references and discover the hope springing forth from the blues we are so used to. The grimly titled highlight “What Death Leaves Behind” addresses its own question with the very Jay-Z-circa-“Monster” answer of “love,” adding on “We will flower again.”
But the musical maturity is the most notable and commendable part of No Blues. Down to a mere six members, there is simply less going on, and David’s melodies must compensate, unable to be carried by distractions. Songs like “Cemetery Gates” and “Avocado, Baby” use every trick at their disposal to make the payoffs punch; violins and synth-tones and harmonies from sister Kim all take the songs to satisfying levels. Hooky without being easy, the album progresses to a six-minute-plus climax “Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary).” By the close of the album the band is flexing musical chops, playing with textures, detuning and rebuilding the song in front of your eyes and being something very much outside its wheelhouse. They are taking risks, and they work. With chatter of an “emo revival” inescapable these days, though hard to actually observe in any real sense, Los Campesinos! seem like the perfect band to benefit from such a trend. No Blues has bigger goals in mind than all that though, and it doesn’t need timeliness to reveal its greatness.