The UK band Lucky Soul’s 2007 LP The Great Unwanted was one of the more stunning debut albums in recent years, a sparkling fusion of melody and melancholy, rooted in the sounds of Motown and ‘50s ‘girl groups’. Centered around the charm and singing talent of Ali Howard, it was also evidence of the songwriting and arranging skills of Andrew Laidlaw, an obvious student of the history of popular music.
They weren’t the first band to draw from that style of pop music, and won’t be the last, but are one of the best doing it currently. In the three years since their debut, that field has grown even more crowded, but their second album, A Coming of Age, shows at every step what sets them apart. As an album, it builds on their strengths but sees them developing that sound in several different directions, showing the way a band can take relatively common templates and breathe life into them. Sharp songwriting and musicianship makes all the difference.
The history of pop music amounts to sad love songs, but Lucky Soul have found clever ways of writing sad love songs in different terms. On this album, there are no straightforward “my love has left me so now I’m sad and alone” choruses. The song “Our Heart” may be the closest, but it takes a physical and existential angle, with lyrics like, “Visions of you burn down the back of my eyes / I can’t use them / I’m worried and blind / Reminded about you”. The pain of heartbreak affects the entire body; the song breaks that down, body part by body part. A similar trick is used on “Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Shame”, an even more devastating song that’s also snappy as can be. Howard sings, “A sad malaise creeps into me / Like shadows on my lungs”, a splendid description of the overall mood across A Coming of Age.
Accompanying the album’s glamorous sheen and bright, smile-inducing melodies is that sense of malaise. Probing the condition of the broken heart is a song’s most likely focus, but these songs also convey a more general feeling that things are going awry. The first phrase on the album is “dark times ahead”, sung on the first single “Woah Billy”. That feeling seems to hang in the air everywhere. Later in the song, Howard sings, “I think my time is running out / I’m ticking”. A couple songs later is “Up in Flames”, one of the album’s catchiest songs, which asks the musical question, “Whatcha gonna do when it all goes up in flames?”
Song after song presents bright sound, while the band contemplates a scenario where everything around them is collapsing. The words used to describe this condition are specific and creative enough to be chilling, even while the music is taking us higher. A sample from across the album: “Got a long hard summer to live through” (“That’s When Trouble Begins”); “A shadow on my soul / So hard to lose” (“Southern Melancholy”); “The sound of breaking glass / Breaking in my chest” (“Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Shame”).“
Lucky Soul aren’t just using one simple happy music/sad lyrics trick, though. The most high-energetic pop tracks use strings, horns, handclaps, and backing vocals in careful and effective ways. The arrangements are full of nuance, of places where sadness and sweetness are entwined. They’re playing the same buoyant pop-soul as on their debut, but they push it in different places, towards gospel (“Love 3”), disco (“Woah Billy!”), or a Booker T-like soul groove (“Ain’t Nothin’ Like a Shame”). The title song gets surprisingly dense, nearing some kind of art-rock place that you would never imagine the band entering.
The ballads “Warm Water”, “Southern Melancholy”, and “Upon Hilly Fields” represent that continual search to find sweetness within sadness, feeling within emptiness. “Upon Hilly Fields” is an elegant stroll, a gem built of sorrow. It ends on a hopeful note, sort of. It feels like hope, but at the same time has an element of terror to it, as our protagonist reveals that despite the heaviness of heartbreak, the pain she felt wash over every core of her being, she would do it all over again in a heartbeat. That’s the story of love; it’s an unavoidable instinct, even when you know you’ll be crushed. The song conveys that beautifully.
The genius of A Coming of Age lies in that capacity to communicate in the same moment the pain and the beauty of love—meaning, essentially, the pain and beauty of human existence itself. They do it within the well-established framework of uplifting, emotionally moving pop songs that you will sing and dance and hum along to as you go about that messy business of living.
// Notes from the Road
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