London Grammar’s third record, Californian Soil, kicks off with a cinematic high. The prologue to the record (simply titled “Intro”) is a sweeping string arrangement, epic in the literal sense. It sounds like it belongs in a fantasy film, complete with baroque instrumentation that gives it a slightly medieval feel. Because of this intro, I had prepared myself for a more chamber-pop-esque record. That isn’t quite what I got. London Grammar is clearly reaching out toward a new sound, but doesn’t want to let go of what got them here in the first place. It makes for some good songs, balanced between the lofty highs of what “Intro” promised and the indie pop ballads we’re familiar with, and yet I can’t help but feel that an opportunity for experimentation was lost.
The title track of the record continues “Intro”’s thread. It has a slinky, mysterious cadence and still contains the strings of the prior track, but places more focus on Hannah Reid’s vocals; a major drawing point to London Grammar, considering her unique contralto voice. The result is a gorgeous, compelling-sounding track. It almost reminds me of How Big, How Blue-era Florence + the Machine, especially the interplay of the strings with the ominous guitar tone. This is the closest London Grammar has ever gotten to creating a song outside of their typical indie ballad niche and I loved it. Even the simplistic lyrics seem to hold weight, cradled as they are in the beauty of the sounds around them.
And then it all washes away. The following song, “Missing,” isn’t able to carry what came before. It tries to reach for it, the lighter harmonies of Reid especially pulling the song out of mediocrity, but it’s a bit too soft. When what came before is so hard-hitting, “Missing” comes off more middling than it may have otherwise.
These bumps in the road are consistent throughout the entire record. The song after “Missing,” “Lose Your Head” is delicate and precise. It places prominence on Reid’s vocals instead of the too-modern synths that “Missing” does and it works much more effectively to convey real emotion. It is a bit too repetitive to be considered a standout, but it’s an interesting listen at the very least. But then things come to a standstill again with “Lord It’s a Feeling” directly after; a song with a good lyrical concept about karma coming back to get someone who manipulates their romantic partners, but that ends up sounding like a half-baked euro-dance lullabye that has little in common with the rest of the record. Just when I feel them hit a new high, something stops me from really engaging a few minutes later.
It gets so droll in the middle of the record that I barely remember either “Call Your Friends” or “All My Love.” And yet, I have a real fondness for the two-song run in the same section of “How Does It Feel” and “Baby It’s You.” Both are upbeat, at least in sound, so it’s easy to see why these songs were released as singles over the few months. Perhaps these songs use some synth tones that would be more at home in a 2015 Coldplay song, but the contrast of the break-up anger lyrics with the euphoric pop instrumentation in “How Does It Feel” is too fun to pass up and the build-up to the aggressively pretty chorus of “Baby It’s You” begs to be hummed along to.
To its credit, the record finishes quite strong, pulling itself back together by the finale. “Talking” returns to the chamber pop sound of “Intro” and “Californian Soil,” even incorporating some country flavor to decent success. “I Need the Night” sounds like a Marina B-side in the best way; a strong synth-led ballad about drinking away your problems fits within the context of a record with so much thematic content about being a woman in the music industry and having bad luck with your relationships because of it.
At the end there is “America.” Going in, I had assumed that it would be a political ballad about our garbage fire of a country from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone hoping for that will be disappointed. What we got instead is a contemplative piano ballad about the American dream. London Grammar are a British band, but obviously spend a lot of time here in the US as they tour and record. Approaching America as the symbol of the ideal career, of success in the traditional sense, Reid admits that “she never had a home for me.” This is true for most in the US, whether they were born here or came here searching for that dream they were promised. Maybe this “America” is more of a metaphor about chasing goals that may never be fulfilled and the devastation that can wreak on the psyche, but it reflects a very real phenomenon regarding the ability to find success in this country. It’s the perfect closer to the record and a great song in its own right.
Californian Soil works best when it leans into its weirder bits and bobs. Unfortunately, much of the record ends up feeling too safe, easy listening for an office, instead of the captivating baroque-inspired work of art it almost was. There’s nothing wrong with easy listening, but when you’re that close to something special, I can’t help but wish there was a bit more meat on the bones. That being said, there are an impressive number of good stand-alone songs on this album. On the strength of its best tracks alone, this is the best era London Grammar has had since If You Wait. I’m excited to see where this momentum takes them.
McKinzie Smith is a former film student from Portland, OR. In her adolescence, she followed Fall Out Boy up and down the West Coast. She now considers herself very cool and normal and only a little bit emo. She now spends most of her time listening to Charli XCX in her kitchen and writing articles about things she likes.