I saw Los Campesinos! a few years back on the Romance Is Boring tour. While my friend and I stood in a half-filled room at Chicago's Metro for an early all ages show, we became acutely aware of one fact: there were a lot of teenagers in attendance. Teens with parents. This wasn't so much a surprise (LC! got the twee pop tag early on) as uncomfortable. Admittedly, we felt ashamed for taking those last couple shots at the Gingerman next door, but we were also the legal, slightly inebriated patrons standing around a small cohort of 14-to-16-year-olds and their dads. I wondered what these teenagers and I had in common that would bring us together for such an event. A Los Campesinos! song will involve one, if not all three, of the following: some sort of heartbreak/sexual frustration, the consequences of death, and non-American football (soccer). How did we relate?
All things considered, Los Campesinos! don't play a particularly nascent form of indie rock: amicable, head bob-inducing percussion encourages jangly guitars that in turn give substance to quaint melodies delineated through a host of instruments. While cursory motivations helped draw attention to their punk ethos (e.g. each member adopted Campesinos! as a surname; they publish a quarterly fanzine called Heat Wave), indie pop is their main residency and has been since their debut, Hold On Now, Youngster... Over the years LC! progressively calmed, giving way to more restrained, refined songwriting. Even as Gareth Campesinos, who's unashamed, ostensibly tongue-in-cheek wit is employed to discern otherwise intensely personal revelations, absorbed a dark posturing. No Blues, the fifth studio album from the UK six piece, finds them reclaiming some of their former exuberance as they continue to navigate the minefield of insecure, awkward relationships and find the courage to be happy, or at least hopeful.
In typical LC! fashion, album opener "For Flotsam" starts with Gareth singing the song's ominous refrain over acoustic guitar and quiet synthesizers before the Campesinos! orchestra launches into anthemic formation. Gareth spends the next three minutes delivering a determined narrative about two jaded narcissists bent on bending each other, though not in the same way. No matter if it does or doesn't happen, "I want you to know that I want to." It's Gareth's strongest moment on record; however, like most admissions on No Blues, the thought never leaves his head and he's left with the adult task of figuring out how to manage desires against needs.
In contrast, their musical development is less conflicted. Since shedding the twee pop tag that stung them after Hold On, LC! have written some of the most articulated, critical, and detailed pop music in recent memory. They abandoned linear melodies and cheap vocal trade-offs long ago, and even as they continue to hammer away indie pop locutions, their brand is at its most defined on No Blues. Songs aren't complete without at least two additional sources of sound accompanying the standard guitars/drum dynamic. That often means a variety of synthesizers and strings, but also horns, bells, percussion, hand claps and a disparate use of vocals. When they aren't testing out new tricks, like thick synthesizer on the plodding "The Time Before the Last Time", which sees Gareth further explore his deeper register, or mixing children choirs with reversed guitar play back and fervid jazz percussion on "Avocado, Baby", they rely on crafting strong musical interplay until it feels intuitive; like mixing the Ramones, Belle & Sebastian and Broken Social Scene into one blissful mess.
At this point in LC!'s life any notions of romance or glamor are dead. Gareth is growing up, and has become blasĂ©. As he ruminates the possibility of life as tautological ("What Death Leaves Behind"), it's clear he's not in a positive headspace. He's lonely, despondent and exhausted by a life that conversely ends inconspicuously but never really stops. His chief concern still remains: finding a girl that likes him as much as he likes her. But it's complicated by the realization of finitude. While others might use that sort of awareness as motivation, Gareth just wants to give up ("Glue Me"). The interesting twist concerning his depression is its lack of a destructive character. Sure, he welcomes despair on "As Lucerne/The Low", but still demonstrates the human propensity toward perseverance ("Pounding the earth for the early worm, I'm a glutton but it's good for my glutes").
It also explains why he's using his well-documented libido as a coping mechanism, and not a tool for foraging human connection. Where before he would stumble through sexual encounters, now he maneuvers with calculated intent. In pun homage to the Smiths, "Cemetery Gaits" recounts a tryst at a graveyard. With the banality of life at the forefront, and death in the background, Gareth and his partner have sex because "happenstance can wait for tomorrow," despite the very real possibility that his "heart and all resolve might break." Of course, it's a bit of a ruse. Often the unlucky one in love, Gareth has become somewhat callous and indifferent to matters of the heart, a conditioned state he regards with pride ("A heart of stone, rind so tough it's crazy/ that's why they call me the avocado, baby").
Death, both real and perceived, is a well of inspiration Gareth continuously drinks from. Whether contemplating the permanence behind human mortality or the humiliation associated with social destitution, he can't quite shake the thought. He takes it a step further on album closer "Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)", imagining his own suicide by jumping off a bridge. And while the whole affair is appropriately uneventful and nondescript â?? "a splash all I left in the world" â?? he brandishes a type of resilient optimism you wouldn't expect from someone wanting to greet death; "Oh, I was a bird right then/ one day I will be again" (he offers similar metaphorizing of life on "What Death Leaves Behind"). It becomes clear No Blues isn't a resigning observation, but rather a tempered reminder. And it doesn't matter how old you are, we all need to be reminded once in a while.