“This album is the most upbeat London Grammar has ever been,” singer Hannah Reid told the NME in February. She’s right. Californian Soil is a record flooded with light. Refracted afternoon sunbeams ping from the guitar harmonics struck on the title track, as cool-white club strobes sweep through arms-up bangers like “Lose Your Head” and “How Does it Feel?”.
After a decade of democracy, the trio who met at Nottingham University have firmly repositioned Reid as their frontwoman. She says too many people assumed “if you’re a lady singer with an ethereal voice” then “the boys must take care of everything else”. Reid has always written the band’s lyrics and top lines, with Dan Rothman working on keyboards and scoring and Dot Major adding guitars and other atmospherics. But this time, you can feel Reid as the driving force, taking unblinking aim at the misogyny she has encountered in both her personal and professional life.
Initially recorded at Rothman’s Narnia studio (hidden behind a wardrobe in his north London home), the album is built on their signature triptronic pop and braced by Reid’s sense of purpose. Melodies feel constructed around the cathedral architecture of her pure, classically influenced vocals, which rise in soaring – often breathy – arches capable of carrying more emotional weight than you’d expect.
Sonically, long-term fans won’t get any shocks. London Grammar are still drawing water from the 1990s trip hop well: Massive Attack, Morcheeba, Goldfrapp. Graceful strings and guitar hooks snake their way around bell-bottomed beats, handclaps and retro synths. British producer George FitzGerald (Tracey Thorn, Bonobo, Lil Silva) gives each layer a nuanced lustre. There’s even a nod to Enigma’s monk-enhanced 1990 hit “Sadeness (Part I)” – “Sade! Dis moi!” – in the album’s trance, spiritual intro (all misty bell tolling and heaven-gazing “ahhhhs”). This gives way to “Californian Soil”, which leans heavily on the woozy-crisp folktronica of Beth Orton’s Trailer Park and is (melodically) indebted to Marlene Shaw’s 1969 soul classic, “California Soul”.
The album is bookended by the band’s disappointing tour of the US. Despite its sun-dazed sound and stoner tapes running backward, “Californian Soil” is about a loss of pride in a state where, “They keep trying it on/ They keep trying it on.” Closing track “America” finds Reid lamenting the time spent “chasing a dream that meant nothing to me” in a country that “never had a home for me”. In between these bitter-sweet reflections on the band’s time in the US come a slew of songs destined to flatten the grass of festival fields. “Baby It’s You” marries a rattling beat to a dreamy hook as Reid sings to “all these painted faces singing back at me”. “Lose Your Head” hitches euphoric stomps and handclaps to a line about the power struggle in a toxic relationship: “What a way to go to bed/ With those thoughts inside your head…”
Reid’s “feminist record” names its issues on songs such as “Missing”, with its contempt for alpha males, and “Lord It’s a Feeling”, where synth exhilaration fuels the carefully controlled rage of: “I saw the way you made her feel like she should be somebody else… I saw the way you laughed behind her back when you f***ed somebody else”.
At times, listeners are likely to drift off. London Grammar seldom grab you by the collar; they’re thoughtful middle-class kids making tasteful pop landscapes. If you’re chatting in the car, odds are you might not even notice that Reid is pouring her heart out. But if you’re driving alone, she is capable of breaking yours.