Paring her sound back to little more than her skillful guitar-playing and deep, husky voice, the London songwriter explores the aftermath of a breakup with confidence and repose.
Lianne La Havas’ first two albums were lush blends of pop-R&B, rock, and folk music, steeped in her six-string acoustic guitar and warm, lilting voice. On 2015’s Blood, the London-born songwriter explored her Jamaican and Greek heritage alongside meditations on love, displaying her ear for winding melodies and a fondness for dreamily poetic lyrics. On La Havas’ earthy self-titled third album, however, she pares her sound back entirely for a folk-soul style filigreed with little more than her skillful guitar-playing and deep, husky voice. The approach serves a breakup album that excavates a failed relationship with bracing vulnerability, in the process revealing a statement of purpose and artistry that La Havas has worked toward for years.
Lianne La Havas is about the singer’s whirlwind relationship with a musician in Los Angeles, and a breakup that spurred a move home to London to piece together the music she’d been working on and take stock of her own personal growth. It’s a theme that she’s touched on before—portioning an ex’s thoughtlessness into heartbreaking parts is some of her bread and butter—but here it comes into focus through sparse instrumentation and a complicated rendering of the mental flux that comes with realizing it’s time to move on. “Knowing my head from my tail isn’t easy for me,” she admits on “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” an ambling highlight that features Nick Hakim playing the record’s only electric guitar. Later, on the beatific “Sour Flower,” La Havas offers a thesis: “I’m done settling for so much less than I knew I deserved.”
Yet for as much as the album is about separation—from a person, a place, or disruptive thought processes—there’s never an air of crisis. La Havas is in repose throughout, confident in her needs and desires. “Could make a baby tonight/Throw my life away,” she sings off-the-cuff on “Read My Mind,” a breezy tropicália-inspired song that coasts on sauntering drums. Her melodies evoke the rush of new romance, a theme that perfumes the first half of the album with sensuality. She also took a break from smoking and drinking around the time she started recording, resulting in a clarity to the grain of her voice that shades her admissions with intense candor.
Lianne La Havas streamlines her impulse to blend styles, while still taking the time to nod toward pioneers. On “Bittersweet,” she lifts a guitar line from Isaac Hayes’ 1971 medley “Ike’s Rap Part III/Your Love Is So Doggone Good” and braids it with hummed vocal melodies: “Now my sun’s going down,” she muses, rounding out the last word with knowing acceptance, “telling me something isn’t right.” La Havas sounds stronger for the doubt, trusting her inner voice to see her through. On a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” her smoky range reveals itself as a natural conduit for Thom Yorke’s mental discord. She slows the stuttering drums of the original song to a resounding heartbeat and accents it with vocoder and keys, revealing new wrinkles by adhering to her determined simplicity. By the time La Havas arrives at the crescendo, voice cracking over handclaps and multi-tracked backing vocals, the song becomes as much hers as it is theirs.
La Havas’ featherlight guitar work is informed by jazz (she taught herself how to play through YouTube tutorials as a teenager), but she leans into knotty folk melodies with equal dexterity. Joni Mitchell’s Hejira is a touchstone here, evident in the meandering turns on “Can’t Fight” and “Green Papaya,” both detailed with delicately fingerpicked notes that trail after each other like ellipses. Her deft skill on guitar famously caught the attention of Prince, who became a mentor and champion of her work before his death in 2016. His loss is among several that La Havas endured while writing the album, something she nods to obliquely with the closing “Sour Flower,” named for a phrase her late great-grandmother used to describe a personal hardship. But the song’s outro manifests La Havas’ sense of overcoming, commingling double bass, piano, and guitar into an exuberant jam session. Throughout the album, each supplementary instrument—a spare flute here, a cello and viola there—lends the music texture and depth.
La Havas’ most profound moment appears on “Paper Thin,” the album’s crushing centerpiece. “It’s your life, but you’re not the only one who’s suffering,” she sings, laying out in generous terms why the relationship no longer serves her. “I know you’re made of better stuff.” Her voice sounds on the verge of tears, tremulous and rich with vibrato. Filled out with guitar, drums, and a low bassline, “Paper Thin” is one of La Havas’ most spare and plainspoken songs, yet it’s a showstopper. Free of expectations and radiating self-assurance, La Havas lets each unvarnished moment stand powerfully on its own.
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