Sometimes We Do Dance: The Light in London Grammar

In the past, I’ve sneakily placed London Grammar music videos into various posts on this […]

CJ Green / 8.9.17

In the past, I’ve sneakily placed London Grammar music videos into various posts on this site for little reason other than that I just really enjoy them. I also wrote about their music once before, several years ago. Much of it is ambient—more silence than you might expect, accompanied by sparse, echoey thrums from Dan Rothman (guitar) and Dot Major (drums/keys), interwoven by stunning vocals from Hannah Reid.

Truth Is a Beautiful Thing is the name of their second album, which was released on June 9. Needless to say it’s been a very London Grammar summer for me.

Upon its release, some critics were too quick to draw worn-out comparisons to the xx and Florence Welch. While I hear similarities between the voices of Hannah and Florence, there is no match in form and intention. Florence is highly spirited, often almost out-of-control, while Hannah remains restrained, even perfectionistic—control, as she sings on this album, is something she is a little too familiar with. She hits every note.

So, yes, London Grammar is often slow, even melancholic at times. But also, there’s this:

On June 9, Katy Perry also released an album, Witness, but that week, in the UK, London Grammar topped the charts. Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given that the UK is their homeland, and they aren’t exactly indie. But Katy is a global sensation with an immaculate, politically correct Twitter feed. (Lauren O’Neil, over at Noisey, gave some thoughts on the upset: “Katy’s campaign for the album—which seems entirely based on her new woke persona—is actually mostly just annoying.”) Even if Katy skewered herself, that doesn’t explain London Grammar’s immense popularity, in spite of their vague, ethereal style.

Of course, there’s the idea that anything melancholic will hit home at some point, simply because we all get sad sometimes. We do, as spiritual people say, have a God-shaped void in our souls, an unquenchable longing. Genuinely existential, London Grammar looks unashamedly into that void (cf. their new song, “Who Am I”).

But to me, this music evokes more than the cry of spiritual homesickness. There’s also the fact that these musicians really understand the unique fractures of the world we live in, and express that understanding so beautifully. Who could better tap into the zeitgeist of this transient, internet-infused world than three thoughtful, uncertain millennials? (And millennials they are: note how Hannah starts “May the Best” with “I really hate the way you cold call me” aka, send a text plz.) They express the emotions of the modern age in its own terms—full of hesitation, doubt, disappointment but also openness, contemplation, and an excruciating amount of talent. There’s no doubt that young people were raised with great expectations and landed hard on memes and anxiety meds; London Grammar turns that seeming vacuity into art: unapologetically postmodern but in an elegant way.

Consider the distance between their first and second albums: four years. Fans like myself had no idea we should take their first album so literally (If You Wait). Given how successful that first endeavor was, London Grammar might have easily rolled out another album, and quickly (note, many unofficial tracks do exist and are available on YouTube for those who seek). Instead, they hit the brakes. In 2014, Hannah spoke openly about her crippling stage fright and then recently to The Guardian about the internal discord of the last tour, and the exhaustion it left them with. During that time, in spite of their widespread success, they performed short live sets, eventually cancelling the tail end of their tour. They went mostly dark for three years and reemerged this past spring. I suppose everyone needs a break now and then. I also suppose it’s this vulnerability that people connect with, at least partially.

But toward the end of a 2014 interview with SpeakerTV, Hannah said something that was, to me, unforgettable: “At our gigs, obviously, people don’t dance. They think about life. Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes they do dance.”

Sometimes we do dance. Sometimes we scrutinize the perplexities of life, wrinkle our noses at its absurdities, and then, after all that, may well hit the floor in our dancing shoes. Certainly in this music there is a murky, existential bent, but there’s also some brilliant, indisputable light in the tunnel, made brighter by any darkness around it.

In this sense, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing is everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s deep and layered but occasionally, over the course of certain songs, loosens up, and listeners do, too.

Anyone familiar with If You Wait will notice that—though several critics called the new album “more of the same”—Truth is actually quite a bit bolder, both musically and lyrically. If You Wait was an exercise in restraint on every level. Elusive nearly to a fault, its songs made no truth claims (except for that one ever-powerful lyric, “Man seems so strong…I’ve never been so wrong”). On that album cover, Dan, Hannah, and Dot are all obscured by flashing lights and very stylish hairdos—their faces are downcast, disengaged.

Compare that to Truth, and the change is startling. Dan, Hannah, and Dot look outward, almost assertively, light shining on their faces. (Dot lurks in shadow, I’ll admit; he could be emerging or receding.) On the new album, their posture is confident, direct, and even though their songs remain hesitant to say exactly what “the truth” is, there is the assertion that it exists, and is beautiful. It’s proclamatory, a brave step out.

The opener, “Rooting For You,” juxtaposes their signature restraint with a flex of Hannah’s voice. Subtle all the way through, it’s a way for London Grammar to communicate straight-off that they are happy to test listeners’ patience, and disrupt expectations, while hitting a note deeper than mere entertainment. The song’s narrator puts herself in her subject’s corner: “I will be here with you/ just like I told you I would.” The song vacillates, though, perhaps a contest of multiple voices, of faith and doubt (“I hesitate”), that ultimately settle in encouragement: “I’ll be rooting for you.” It’s a send-off, then, a bet placed on the listener who is beginning some journey. Track 2, for sleepyheads, is a place to wake: “Big Picture” tells of moving on, letting go (letting “life stretch out before me”). Fuller, sonically, than “Rooting For You,” its last minute or so is, frankly, rocking; likewise, “Wild Eyed,” the third track, picks up after a minute; and “Oh Woman Oh Man,” has rightly proven popular.

Then there’s “Hell to the Liars,” number five. This is the one I really wanted to write about. Maybe the most startling song on the album, the only way I can make sense of it is to hear it as a celebration at the end of self-righteousness:

Hell to the liars
Here’s to you and me
Hell to the best of us
Here’s to you and me

Hell to the righteous ones
Here’s to them

The grey-suited walkers
Prestigious men

Anyone who thinks they are righteous, in other words, you, me, well-dressed businessfolk, are the liars, and to hell with all of that. Strangely crass elements rendered so gently makes for, if nothing else, a fascinating piece of work. (Also note, this theme of the un-deifying of humanity can also be heard on “May the Best”: “So take the God out of your stare for me, because I don’t see him standing there in front of me.”)

These songs seem designed to evoke an emotional response; when scrutinized intellectually, they tend to baffle. That said, “Hell to the Liars” does something that other songs on this album do (particularly “Big Picture”): plays decidedly dark lyrics against triumphant music (the last two or three minutes especially). The result is an almost spiritual cleanse: we confront these dark words, wrestle with them for a bit, and see them through to the other side, where a sense of relief is imminent. It’s an unshackling experience.

Number seven, “Non-Believer,” is another of the fuller songs, this one electronic (in my mind, it’s Truth’s equal of “Metal and Dust”), singing: “All that we are, all that we need…They’re different things.” We need more than whatever we are alone. In the scheme of the song, this is the claim that separates believers from non-believers. I suppose they’re once again gesturing towards human vulnerability but, in the end, I just find the image of Hannah-as-preacher really compelling (“Maybe I’m just a preacher, non-believers crying, ‘Don’t believe her’”).

There’s also “Bones of Ribbon,” which is an absolute highlight for me: “They found me there in the sands, bones of ribbon in my hands.” It’s a song about the movement, the transformation, of a body in a state of weakness, on shifting sands. It is changed from bones of ribbon to a mind of metal, then, off, running. (Reminds me of Ezekiel’s dry bones passage.)

Throughout the album, “judgment” crops up in at least three different songs: on “Hell to the Liars” (“I’m no better than those I judge…with all my suffering”), “Who Am I” (“Who am I to judge you?”), and then again on the following track, “Leave the War with Me.” In all cases, it’s about letting go of judgment, getting out of the judgment game. In the latter song, the chorus repeats, “Better leave that war with me.” Which can be interpreted in two ways, as in: “Walk out with me”; or, “leave it to me—I’ll take care of this.” I lean towards the second interpretation, but either way you have a song about tapping out (contrast with “Rooting For You”.)

For the bonus tracks: A lot of great ones here. First, “Trials.” It is incredibly tender and not to be missed. “Control” suggests perfectionism can’t be satiated: “I am not organic, no; I am hardwired this way.” In a world that wants everything to be organic, from bananas to relationships, it’s refreshing to hear someone (especially if that someone is a favorite band) suggest that we’re more machine-like than we’d prefer to think—to say, at least, I’m a control freak, and I’m not changing. I need someone to accept me, not make suggestions at me.

As if in evidence, the whole magnum opus is capped off with a cover of “Bittersweet Symphony.” The last words of the entire thing are thus “I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change… I am here in my mold… I never pray, but tonight I am on my knees again.”

Lastly, I’ll leave you with their cover of Beyonce’s “All Night,” which, you might recall, was Lemonade’s “redemption” song. Don’t miss the bridge: “True love brings salvation back into me / With every tear came redemption / and my torturer became my remedy”: