Los Campesinos! hones angst in fourth album

by Justin Burris | 11/27/11 11:00pm

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by Courtesy of Banquetrecords.com / The Dartmouth

As a whole, "Hello Sadness" forms a complete narrative, a musical monument to frontman Gareth Campesinos' failed relationship. Despite the overplayed subject of lost love, Los Campesinos! does not passively accept the paradigms for heartbreak albums set by such releases as Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks," Beck's "Sea Change" or even Bon Iver's "For Emma, Forever Ago." Instead, "Hello Sadness" tracks Campesinos' relationship with all the melodramatic hyperbole that could only be borne of the irrational histrionics of a lovelorn griever.

The album's opener "By Your Hand" is an unmistakably jovial track that instantly assails the listener with its chorus and tuneful melody. True to form, Los Campesinos! does not forego the opportunity to leave their lyrics open to interpretation. Though framed by bouncy instrumentals and chirpy vocals, the opening line "by your hand is the only end that I foresee" connotes both the hope of everlasting love and the tragedy of a break-up.

"By Your Hand" is followed by "Songs About Your Girlfriend," which shelves Campesinos' characteristic self-deprecation in favor of punkish immodesty. Taunts such as "your friends all agree on her soft spot for me, I'll have my hot hands over her soft spots soon, you will see" are bolstered by a flurry of orchestral pop.

Ironically, "Hello Sadness," the record's titular anthem, articulates the inability to appreciate a relationship while it still exists. Though the song does contain a repeated verse, it offers nothing immediately recognizable as a chorus. Both the relationship existing in the lyrics and the song itself deny an absence whether of romantic satisfaction or an easily decipherable song structure in favor of innocuous complacency.

"Life is a Long Time" arrives as a series of extended metaphors, appropriating highbrow vocabulary in an implicit ode to the inevitable overanalysis of which every lover is guilty. Ingeniously, just as Campesinos is fixated by the minutiae of his relationship, the track's guitar rises over a rhythmic clap so that the listener is obliged to focus attentively to the intricacies of each riff.

Eventually, the relationship breaks off and Campesinos' sorrow springs forth in the fifth track, "Every Defeat is a Divorce (Three Lions)." Set to a tempo that seems more conducive to talking than singing, the song serves as little more than a forum for Campesinos' operatic airing of grievances.

At only two minutes and 20 seconds long, the somber quasi-acoustic ballad "Hate for the Island" seems too short. Nevertheless, the dirge is gorgeous and poignant, with haunting vocals and wistful lyrics that slowly surrender to a deeply suggestive fadeout.

Breaking this silence, "The Black Bird, The Dark Slope" rushes in as swift, aggressive and mirthlessly grim. This song offers a glimpse into life after the stage of mourning in a guitar-slamming, voice-straining outbreak. The grotesque lyrics of this musical resurrection, however, are made palatable by Kim Campesinos' soothing harmonies that occasionally break through the track's dark clouds.

"To Tundra" offers a tomb-like emptiness, with lethargic pulsations that hit the listener with harmonies only to recede in a twinkling of string synths. With a cadence too abrupt for it to be called melancholy, "Baby I Got the Death Rattle" then takes bleak situations and sprinkles them with humor. The composition itself is cumbersome, but lines such as "You are an angel, that's why you pray, and I am an ass, and that's why I bray" are sufficiently entertaining on their own.

Although "Hello Sadness" is sincere and quasi-confessional throughout, Los Campesinos! concludes their album by ultimately restoring objectivity to the lover's perspective in "Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II." Gareth Campesinos finally sees the flaws in his heartbreaker, as he suddenly seeks out imperfection in her stretchmarks and other features. The song is slow, Gareth Campesinos' voice is unfiltered and piercing snare drums pipe up amidst vocal contributions from the band's other six members. The sound becomes looser and dimmer until it gently dissolves with the phantom memory of the girl about whom the album was composed.

Without context, "Hello Sadness" could be interpreted as a stylistically unpleasant album. Its post-punk sensibilities and graphically explicit lyrics are offputting and idiosyncratic. But to those properly initiated, "Hello Sadness" weaves a masterful dialectic between narrative and structure that serves as an emblem for what subtly plot-bearing music can be.