A few years back, a smoky cloud of British shoegazing, psychedelic-inspired groups floated into the mainstream, drifting into American blogs and music festivals, only to soon be swept away by a stronger gust of wind. Amid this English fog was Childhood, the Nottingham-based band whose 2014 debut Lacuna cast its dreamy pop with heavy-lidded melodies that lacked any distinguishable character. There wasn’t much backbone to it either as the group has returned, three years later, and completely abandoned the dazed reverb and fuzzy vocals now that the trend has worn thin.
Childhood frontman Ben Romans-Hopcraft apparently recently discovered, and then wholly adopted, soul music as the chief inspiration for his band’s sophomore LP, Universal High. The singer returned to his mother’s South London flat following the Lacuna tour cycle and became enamored with her collection of soul and funk records. In interviews about the new album, he has dropped names like Shuggie Otis and the Blackbyrds, as well as the samples he picked up on from MF Doom and Q-Tip albums.
He’s clearly taken these sounds to heart, but his reference points on Universal are a little on the nose. Isolate any one detail of the album—a sharp drum kick, reverbed synth, slap bass or high-pitched harmony—and it’s easy to trace it back to its source. He even went so far as to name the very Cameo-inspired track on the album “Cameo.” Add to it that the band went to Atlanta to record, so as to better soak up the spirit of Southern soul. All are perfectly acceptable and chart-friendly moves. Childish Gambino took his Funkadelic riff “Redbone” to the top of the R&B charts, after all. But when a record is solely defined by its influences, as Universal High is, it’s also difficult to find anything new to absorb from it.
What’s not in doubt is Romans-Hopcraft’s ability to put together a catchy song. Along with his own talents, his long-term friendship with Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski and recent work with Sean Lennon in New York has provided him with a well-informed pop education. With the deep grumble of an opening on “Cameo,” the satisfying sync-up between the synths and chorus on “Understanding” and Romans-Hopcraft’s impressive baritone-to-falsetto vocal range, the elements are all there to create tremendous tracks.
Merely glancing at the title “Californian Light,” the first single from Universal High, the groans about Europeans singing romantically about California can already be heard a mile away. Take a closer look at the track, and the song is not about the Golden State at all, or about anything “light” for that matter. “Californian Light” is a term Romans-Hopcraft coined to describe thinking something is one thing when it is actually the opposite, inspired by a ‘shrooms-fueled San Francisco nighttime adventure, when the songwriter and his friends were admiring the lights of the city, only to realize police officers were shining flashlights in their faces.
It is at these moments of unexpected juxtaposition when Universal High is at its strongest. The staccato piano and whirling synths of “Don’t Have Me Back” jubilantly make way for Romans-Hopcraft to demand, “Don’t ever change and have me back,” which is pretty much the opposite of what anyone has asked from an ex, ever. “Nothing Ever Seems Right,” the clear standout of the record, is so celebratory that you would’ve thought the Little League team in a ‘90s coming-of-age film just scored the winning run. But, in fact, Romans-Hopcraft is recalling how disappointing his life has been thus far, ironically shouting, “Nothing ever seems right/ But it’s gotta lead somewhere/ And I get the same feel all the time.”
At other times, the album’s heavy throwback leanings start to feel downright corny. At least when Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One’s funk project, Tuxedo, does it, they lean on the gimmicks of sparkly suits and live disco dance moves. There’s a few too many “oohs” and “aah” to not have a disco ball and sequined jumpsuited back-up singers on their next tour (which they may very well have). Yet, there’s something about the way Romans-Hopcraft’s falsetto begging, “Oh, baby, I’m down on my knees” on “Too Old For My Tears” that makes him seem more desperate to sound like the Isley Brothers than to actually understand the woman he’s singing to.
Like far too many of the Brit indie-psych bands that rode that recent wave of interest, Childhood lacked character on Lacuna. Now they have switched costumes, becoming unrecognizable to past listeners as they blend into a different, funkier group. Change is good and expected from new, learning artists, but lacking a distinguishable characteristic to cling to makes the trajectory for a band like Childhood hazier than the kaleidoscopic jams they started out with.