We Are Waiting Here For Catastrophe
You have to hand it to Los Campesinos! In one fell swoop they’ve vaulted past the difficult-second-album stage, solidified fan support and moved from promising straight on to precocious. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is no Hold On Now, Youngster…—it can’t possibly be, really—but any band capable of making two separate (not thematically linked, not a double album), good (and not just tolerable or passable, but good) albums in one year is something special. In this case, Los Campesinos! are something special in a way that makes me extremely nervous.
The first reason for that has to do with what you might call the inverse of the sophomore slump. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed sprung out of a fruitful session originally intended to produce b-sides, so there’s little worry that their debut took up all of their good songs, but part of the reason for that album’s near-seismic impact on the hearts of fans was because it was a chance to finally experience old favourites and live barnburners in finished, complete form. I’m not sure if American audiences would have felt the same, but I saw them three times before I heard the album, and if you live over in the UK you certainly could have seen them many more times than that. This new album is ten songs that hadn’t been aired on tour, and so not only did the band not have as much time to come up with them as they did with “You! Me! Dancing!”, “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks”, et al (blessedly, that doesn’t seem to have made much difference), but their audience haven’t had as much time to fall in love. Of course, we’ll never have that chance again, in all probability. Los Campesinos! are a working band now, which is both thrilling and almost sad.
As a fan, of course, you want the band to grow and change and continue, and yet… when you come out of almost nowhere and make as close to a perfect debut as this decade is likely to see, people get a little possessive, and listening to this record I realize that some irrational part of me doesn’t want them to make music that has any virtues not present in those first singles and album; doesn’t want to find out if they’re fallible; doesn’t want to see them try something new. We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed is good enough that it helps me shove that petty response back where it came from, and it’s a relief that Los Campesinos! clearly aren’t going to be listening to anyone wanting them to just stay the same, but my first couple of listens were bittersweet all the same.
But let’s have a little more album review and a little less essaying about fandom, hmm? We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed definitely feels like an album assembled with relative haste compared to the band’s older material. It’s rougher-hewn, less carefully intricate in its hooks (although a song like “You’ll Need Those Fingers for Crossing” still shows off the interplay between Tom’s lead guitar and Harriet’s violin to great effect), and even more angst-ridden than they used to be. I’m not sure whether touring and so on has been bad for Gareth Campesinos’s social life or what, but he’s a bit too on the nose when he begins the album with the line “I think it’s fair I chose hopelessness, and inflicted it on the rest of us”. It’s not a bad look for him as a songwriter, unless you demand your songs void of self-loathing and self-righteousness, despair, cynicism, contempt, and so on.
But these elements were always there, and the euphoria present in and engendered by the music of Los Campesinos! was always both despite and because of that. The band is still firing on all cylinders, even when they downshift into the textured, minor key electronics-and-acoustic guitar lament of “Heart Swells/Pacific Daylight Time” or the instrumental snippet “Between an Erupting Earth and an Exploding Sky” (strangely reminiscent of Mogwai’s “The Sun Smells Too Loud”), and no one can make bitterly self-aware misanthropy sound quite as exciting as this band does. “Ways to Make It Through the Wall”, “Miserabilia”, and the title track provide an extremely strong start to the record both in terms of advancing Gareth’s pessimistic outlook—“shout at the world, because the world doesn’t love you” might as well be the motto this time around—and seducing the audience into again finding all this tremendously exciting, even uplifting. The closest thing to a mis-step here is “Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1”, and that’s mostly because coming from the punchy “The End of the Asterisk” and the welcome emotional and sonic shift of “Heart Swells/Pacific Daylight Time” its noisy instrumental coda drifts out of a focus a bit. That the worst this band seems capable of doing is basically a solid album track as opposed to yet another song you could see being a single isn’t really anything but praising with faint damns, however.
In my review of their debut for PopMatters, I compared Los Campesinos! to Barack Obama, and except for the fact that nothing the band could have done this year could be analogous to Obama’s recent electoral triumph, I think the metaphor has only solidified. There is a sense in which both can be said to have not quite lived up to their initial promise so far, although things are still very early in the game. But this is because, quite frankly, our expectations for each were wildly unrealistic. Each has buckled down and gotten to work and done something better and less exciting/myth-making than flaming out and leaving behind limitless potential. Instead, both band and politician have suggested they have the chops to stick around for a good long time, albeit under their own terms. In a way, maybe We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed was a good move so that us rabid fans could calm down and accept Los Campesinos! as a good, potentially great band, and not as the Saviors of All it was tempting to anoint them as. They haven’t made another classic yet, but cut them some slack, it’s only been a year.
- Multiple songs MySpace