“On a horse called Autumn among certain decaying things she rides inside me, and no matter where I move this woman’s song goes on ahead of me.”
—UK poet Brian Patten “On a Horse Called Autumn” from Collected Love Poems
Sometimes you encounter a voice that stops you dead your in your tracks. It’s the kind of voice that instantly evokes a mood, a particular emotion or even an entire season within its timbre. Hannah Reid of the English art-pop rock trio London Grammar possesses such a staggering instrument. She smolders in her smoky mid-range and roars bright and clear in the upper end, recalling the brooding earthiness of a Marina Diamandis or Natasha Khan and the breathtaking folk soprano of a young Joni Mitchell. Even if the music surrounding her wasn’t as riveting as what’s been recorded on their debut album If You Wait, that voice would still leave you spellbound.
Vocalist Hannah Reid met guitarist Dan Rothman in the hallways of the University of Nottingham in 2009, later incorporating the percussion and pianistic skills of Dot Major. After playing a handful of shows to small crowds in local pubs the trio were signed by Ministry of Sound, an independent label known more for it’s electro-rave compilations than anything on this mood-laden offering. Sheltered from the pressures of a massive record company breathing down their necks, the group slowly released one radiant gem after another, giving them the opportunity to hone their craft until they were ready to release an entire album. Not until they were featured as the closing track on the critically acclaimed debut album Settle, by Disclosure, were they thrust into the mainstream limelight. Nothing on If You Wait approaches the swaying dance floor groove of “Help Me Lose My Mind”, but it matters little when the songs are this sumptuous.
The comparisons to British indie-pop band the xx or early Everything But the Girl aren’t terribly far off, but London Grammar have carved out a singular vision for themselves. The term “slow burner” could have easily been created for an album such as this. Leisurely drawing you in, some songs will pass by and go unnoticed upon first listen, but will open up like a flower that only blooms at night, upon a second. Others immediately prevent you from continuing any task at hand, turning your focus once again to that voice and Reid’s honest lyrics.
If You Wait’s first single “Hey Now” arrived via YouTube in December of 2012, providing the blueprint for the rest of the album. Instrumentation is stripped back to a bare minimum, turning all the focus over to the trio’s front woman and her delivery. “Hey now, letters burning by my bed for you. Hey now, I can feel my instincts here for you,” she sings, dropping words such as “frightening” and “lightning” to describe a new love. This is the sound of emotions simmering in a pot on the stove until they boil over the edge.
This innocuous, obsessive young love spills into the second track “Stay Awake”, where the pace picks up a bit at the subtle pulse of a drum beat and a high hat cymbal. “I am the blank page before you. I am the fine idea you crave. I live and breathe under the moon, and when you cross the bridge I’ll come and find you.” “Shyer” continues the developing storyline with plucked guitar strings and a vulnerable plea to her lover to give up the pain they feel, so the relationship can thrive.
By the time the fourth track “Wasting My Young Years” arrives, the doe-eyed altruism has all but seemingly dissipated. An absolute highlight of a record adorned with many, this is the one song I have returned to countless times. It’s as much a documentation of romance gone sour, as a possible commentary on the alarming plight of jobless young adults in a merciless economy. These men and women finish their university careers and find that there are absolutely no jobs to be had in their fields. The track beautifully ruminates on a theme of finding oneself amidst uncertainty: “Don’t you know that it’s only fear? I wouldn’t worry, you have all your life. I’ve heard it takes some time to get it right.” Indeed.
As if a friend is listening and offering comforting advice, the next track “Sights”, is the musical equivalent of a morale booster, proving support and telling the recently single or jobless individual to find that inner strength, forge ahead, and keep the faith. Hannah has mentioned in interviews her interest in the psychology of human behavior and fourth single “Strong” meditates on the topic of turning a blind eye, with lyrics such as “If a lion, a lion roars would you not listen?” The song serves as the true centerpiece of record, fully unleashing the raw beauty of Reid’s voice.
It took me a moment to realize that their cover of Kavinsky’s “Nightcall”, known rather well from the soundtrack to the Nicholas Winding Refn film Drive, wasn’t actually one of their own compositions. Appearing in this stripped back setting with piano and almost nonexistent guitar accompaniment, the track then dips its toes in trip-hop territory three-fourths of the way through with a shimmering, slinky beat and renders the original a non-entity. “Metal & Dust” continues the skittering beats, offering up such amusing lyrics as “we argue, we don’t fight”. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard acquaintances provide excuses such as these to defend their crumbling relationships.
“Interlude”, the only live offering, displays the gorgeous intimacy of Major’s piano accompaniment. It’s heart-wrenching. “Flickers” sees her band members joining her vocally for the first time and is one of the more playful numbers of the set. On the deluxe edition, “Darling Are You Gonna Leave Me”, with its use of the djembe, sounds like an homage to Afro-pop and “When We Were Young”, rolls along on a riffing guitar and a hip hop vibe. The album ends with the haunting title song, “If You Wait”. Hannah appeals to her lover to be patient, suggesting that neither party can give each other everything they both need, but that time will eventually provide all the answers. The final chord dissolves into the sound of wind blowing in the distance.
Pensive, melancholic ballads, nocturnal grooves and atmospheric laments on youth and matters of the heart form the core of London Grammar’s sound and the subject matters they explore. Perfectly suited for the falling of leaves and long winter nights, this is a record both fragile and full of exuberant hope. The inner life of the walking wounded and the angst of embracing adulthood haven’t been this well documented on record in quite a long time and I can say without hesitance that If You Wait is a classic in the making.
// Notes from the Road
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