On her first solo album in 14 years, the former Belle and Sebastian singer indulges a gently psychedelic fantasy of California fleshed out with gospel vocals and a Tom Petty cover.
Twelve months ago you would have gotten long odds on Isobel Campbell returning in 2020 with an album of dashing, adventurous, and even rather funky indie pop. The former Belle and Sebastian singer may have scuffed up her musical palette in the 2000s with a trio of releases alongside onetime Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan, but she nevertheless remained frozen in the public eye as the ethereal voice of cardigan indie, an impression hardly helped by the two so-gentle-they’re-almost-not-there albums she recorded as the Gentle Waves.
But Los Angeles, where Campbell now lives, loves a comeback, particularly one as unlikely and triumphant as There Is No Other, Campbell’s first solo album in 14 years and among the best things she has put her name to since leaving Belle and Sebastian. There Is No Other may remind listeners of Campbell’s illustrious past—her nebulous whisper of a voice has the effect of Proust’s madeleine on a certain breed of indie-pop fan—but it also suggests the hitherto untapped potential of a musical magpie, taking in everything from synthesizer sleaze to gospel-infused soul.
Psychedelia is a touchstone—Campbell has spoken of the record’s “dreamy, otherworldly feel”—but she taps the gentle Californian psychedelia of “Incense and Peppermints” and Friends-era Beach Boys rather than the acid freak-out of Syd Barrett’s solo career; the kind of psychedelia you could take home to meet your parents for tea, muffins, and meditation.
Indeed, the gilded specter of California hangs heavy over There Is No Other. But this is the California of dreamy sunsets and Laurel Canyon bongos, as seen through the eyes of an outsider, rather than the more humdrum reality of America’s most populous state. “City of Angels” is an ode to a city Campbell finds “seductive yet overwhelming,” while “Boulevard” is her reaction to L.A.’s homeless crisis—not that you would notice the angst amid the two songs’ campfire-and-red-wine vibe. The former is particularly lush, a mixture of gently picked acoustic guitar, finger cymbals, and chirping cicadas, the melodic warmth inviting you to pull up a seat and toast a marshmallow.
Elsewhere, the vibe is closer to Glasgow-gone-American. “The Heart of It All” and “Hey World” add sweet gospel vocals to Campbell’s pastel tones, bringing to mind Primal Scream’s experiments on Screamadelica—sincere and evocative if not entirely convincing. In the album’s most unlikely move, Campbell covers Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” replacing the song’s signature guitar riff and driving rock drums with lightly distorted synth and drum machine, bringing a delicious nonchalance to Petty’s automotive anthem.
That Campbell gets away with this broad palette is thanks to her empathetic arrangements and clever songwriting—the pocket chorus of “Ant Life” has the kind of understatement that only experienced writers would dare. She has a knack for making everything sound utterly effortless, as if the songs came to her during an afternoon nap. A 14-year gap between solo albums might suggest struggle and toil, but perhaps the best compliment you could pay this picture postcard of a release is that you would never suspect how long its creator had been away.
Buy: Rough Trade
(Pitchfork may earn a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)