No Blues, Los Campesinos!’ s fifth album, is like all new LC! albums – especially for those fans so dedicated to their early stuff (from Hold On Now, Youngster to Romance Is Boring) – in that it takes a while to settle with and form a proper opinion on. 2011’s Hello Sadness saw the band step onto a more downbeat and dark path than listeners had been used to; however, unlike Hello Sadness, for me No Blues seems a lot less forced when it comes to choruses and melodies, and in general it sounds like the band have settled into their current line-up on this fifth album much more than they did back in 2011.
Famous for their varied instrumentation, noise-pop and post-rock leanings and use of melody upon melody, this album to me seems more clear in its layers. The album opens with “For Flotsam”, with haunting background synths and Gareth Campesinos!’s vocals breaking out into percussion. It’s a punchy beginning, diving straight into the chorus (like Hello Sadness opener “By Your Hand “), but somehow it already makes No Blues feel slower and more thought-out than its predecessor, a feeling that persists right through to the closing “Selling Rope (Swan Dive Into The Estuary). This format for the structure of the songs, with the introductions fading in first, applies to most the ‘big’ tracks in No Blues, the ones you imagine will be future singles or fan favourites: “For Flotsam”, “What Death Leaves Behind”, “Cemetery Gaits”, “As Lucerne/The Low”, “Let it Spill”, and it’s a technique that works effectively. From the pre-album releases of “What Death Leaves Behind” and “Avocado, Baby” we should have seen this coming; it’s a new sound, not entirely different from the old one, but more refined and considered. Speaking of this new concentrated sound, Gareth has said it was “a decision we thought we made going into Hello Sadness, when in reality it turned out not to be. We’ve been aiming to do this for a while”.
Overall, it all feels a bit lighter than Hello Sadness and more grown up than Romance is Boring and the band’s earlier material. If the likes of their 2006-2009 stuff is an angsty teenager, then Hello Sadness and No Blues are troubled twenty year olds, in the midst of quarter-life crises. It’s not as raw, but it’s still there.
Not every track on the album sticks by this structure and sound though; “A Portrait of A Trequartista As A Young Man” is a lot more acoustically-led, with acoustic guitar and piano sounds at the fore, offering a bit of variation, whilst the balladesque “Glue Me”, which is the weakest and most lacklustre song on the album, but still the simplistic hook of “I’ll be gloomy/‘til they glue me/in the arms of she who loves me/’til the rats and worms/are all interned/at least five feet above we” has some sincerity and weight to it. Penultimate track “The Time Before the Last Time” will become, in my opinion, one of the more underrated tracks on the album; the shortest on the album, which doesn’t kick in properly until over half way through, with the drawn out background vocals proving difficult to decipher as anything more than just a mumbled melody upon a first listen. Listen closer though, and you can hear the remnants of a dying relationship being played out lyrically as they croon “One last meal, one last gesture/cheapest wine, second best restaurant/ Clapperboard of two pork chops/ Credits roll before the scene stops”.
It is these kind of nihilistic lyrics that have been focused on by reviews, and as Gareth pointed out on Twitter “these LC! reviews focus on me and the lyrics, such is the nature of the narrative, and subsequently Tom [Campesinos!] [and his songwriting] doesn’t get singled out for praise anywhere near as much as he deserves”. Of course the album, like all those before it, is a collaboration of the two, and an excellent job has been done by both… but you have to admit that, lyrically, No Blues is very special.
We have the typically hyperbolic and sophisticated language used in Los Campesinos!’ lyrics, only No Blues seems to have stepped it up a notch. For example, in “Cemetery Gaits”: “I shimmy up the cenotaph/Regale with my melancholy” then within the very next line, Gareth delivers the fantastic imagery of “two words upon my headstone, please/don’t need date or name, just ‘Sad Story’’’. This, mixed with a football pun in nearly every song (that I won’t even pretend to understand) and similes such as “you say you’re an old cassette tape that has gone and split it’s spool/you’re far more like a wet cardboard tube on this nightclub floor” that gives Los Camp the right mix between high-brow references and down-to-earthiness. And in effect, this album is a question about the inevitably of death and sadness, but with the gritty bits of life slotted in between. Despite so much imagery of death and decay, No Blues really lives up to its name, dwelling upon such miserabilia in a more tongue-in-cheek and accepting tone of ‘shit happens’ than anything else (with some amazing sing-along lines that will stick in your head for days).
If you haven’t listened to Los Campesinos! before then I recommend No Blues as a starting point; it’s technically the best album they have ever produced. Giving this album a score is hard, because LC! are divisive as anything, and are certainly not the same band that emerged in 2006 (in terms of personnel or in any other sense). The potential audience is split; you will either have barely listened to them (or not at all), or you will know every single track on every single record. This album will do the same; even if fans don’t love it or the band themselves as much as they used to, they will stick by it, but most importantly they will have an opinion on it. What this band does when they release a new album means something those people. And as long as Los Camp keep making music that makes people react like that, doing something a bit different but still keeping the old elements there, then in my books they have done a good job.