The UK electronic-pop trio’s third album draws on a renewed sense of extroversion and energy, which can’t always overcome its lyrical and production missteps.
London Grammar never made a lot of noise. Even as singer Hannah Reid’s throaty alto garnered comparisons to Florence Welch, she and bandmates Dot Major and Dan Rothman rarely offered anything more surprising than the occasional end-of-song breakbeat. The huge proportions of Adele producers Greg Kurstin and Paul Epworth left 2017’s Truth Is a Beautiful Thing sounding slumberous, so London Grammar’s third full-length, Californian Soil, attempts instead to channel the energy of Reid’s past collaborations with Disclosure and Flume. Major and Rothman embrace harder-hitting instrumentals, matching Reid’s newfound lyrical ambition to explore femininity and relationship dynamics. If the new album isn’t as consistent as their 2013 debut If You Wait or as epic in scope as Truth, the trio still push themselves to keep it interesting.
Only four songs here don’t employ an orchestra, and the cinematic scale comes through just as intended. “Californian Soil” continues the band’s penchant for making songs that sound like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” but the strings are so lush and Reid’s vocals so forceful that it’s easy to compartmentalize the resemblance. (That won’t help with the lyrics; what is “I am young, I am old/So you do what you’re told” supposed to mean?) “Baby It’s You,” a blissful, atmospheric love song courtesy of London electronic producer George FitzGerald, particularly benefits from the extroversion and quicker tempos.
Boosting the percussion offers more depth. The beat drops on “Lord It’s a Feeling” and “I Need the Night” hit with a confidence the band’s more restrained music never mustered. But the album’s biggest attempt at pop crossover is its greatest weakness: “How Does It Feel,” produced with Steve Mac (best known for Ed Sheeran’s inescapable “Shape of You”) doesn’t smooth out London Grammar’s quirks so much as place them in an entirely inappropriate context. Reid does her best, but her vocals clash against the stiff groove, the “Can’t Feel My Face”-style bassline, the sheer Rita Ora-ness of it all.
“Call Your Friends,” oddly also produced by Mac, represents the strongest evolution of the band’s sound. Reid’s lyrics sometimes struggle, like the reference to a “drama mama” that kills the tension of “Missing,” but on “Call Your Friends” she finds a way to assert independence while also begging for love: “Every time I tried/To make myself seem small/In the arms of others/Who never loved me better.” It’s desperate and affectionate, yet not needy. But it’s not always so easy to tell what she means to say. “There is a whisper that our God is a she,” Reid sings on “I Need the Night,” but the idea sits strangely in a song that’s mostly about drinking with friends. “America” sketches a more intriguing parallel between the false promises of a nation and those of the music industry: “All of our time chasing a dream/A dream that meant nothing to me.”
Despite missteps, California Soil expands the scope of London Grammar’s electronic-pop formula and the themes of their songwriting. There’s nothing as intimate as breakthrough single “Hey Now,” but in return, the greater variety avoids the sameness of past albums. While Soil doesn’t always fulfill their ambition, it still suggests that the more sound this group makes, the more they’re worth hearing.