[12 April 2009]
One of the poems in A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young is called “Spring Morning”. It wonders to itself, repeatedly, “Where am I going?”, and continues, “I don’t quite know. / What does it matter where people go?” Through simple language and a child’s literal viewpoint, Milne portrays the whimsy and freedom of an aimless walk in the countryside. At the same time, it’s a celebration of human self-determination—we aren’t constrained by a single thing. Jof Owen’s lyrics often mirror both the themes and childish affect of Milne. Owen imagines himself, midway through the Boy Least Likely To’s new album, floating above the world—“I’m free, I suppose / I can go where I want to go”, he sings, in what could have been a line from Milne’s poem.
But as you listen to “A Balloon on a Broken String”, something strange happens. “I try to be cheerful / But I can feel myself deflating all the time”, it begins. The music’s so full of cheerful handclaps and buzzy acoustic guitars, you could miss the twist. Then: “I’m sad and alone”. Then, in a coda buoyed by glockenspiels:
I know I look shiny and bouncy
But I’m all empty inside, and I worry that
If I was to just burst suddenly
Then no-one would even notice me.
This is the Boy Least Likely To’s trick, and if it’s not entirely unexpected—they follow in the twee tradition of smiling sweetly while stabbing you in the heart—you can’t argue with the execution. Hot Chip work a similar dichotomy in their mock-threats; we’re never scared, but we sure are intrigued.
The Law of the Playground retains the childlike aesthetic of The Best Party Ever, the Wendover duo’s debut, and if it doesn’t have quite the same AM glow of “Warm Panda Cola” or “Hugging My Grudge”, it also avoids the over-preciousness of “I’m Glad I Hitched My Apple Wagon to Your Star”. The expansions of scope and production are slight, but in all there is a feeling of progress—the twelve songs here are complete, with no half-penned sketches. Over Pete Hobbs’s fuller instrumental accompaniment, Owen’s still-light voice is gaining a hint of authority. “I might be small / But I’m not a coward”, he sings on “Every Goliath Has His David”.
As usual, there’s a twist here, too. Owen follows this boast immediately with “I’ve got puppy powers / That I’m not afraid to use”. So, still being cute. But that’s part of what made this band so likeable in the first place. Another reason why their music has a compelling completeness is the group’s self-mythologizing. On The Best Party Ever we were treated to “The Battle of the Boy Least Likely To”; now we have “The Nature of the Boy Least Likely To” and “The Boy Least Likely To Is a Machine”. The last is most obviously a triumph, grinding out of a twitter of mad-inventor sounds a jangly, deep-throated groove. The conceit of the song reminds me of the New Yorker cover from last year’s technology issue, and I can just imagine the Boy Least Likely To building, Wallace-style, an intricate contraption to provide the human comfort of a companion with whom to play cards.
Good news for those who loved the debut’s melodies: plenty of material on The Law of the Playground gives that luxuriant pleasure. First single “I Box Up All the Butterflies” is casual about its child’s-play cruelty; it doesn’t matter, you’ll still sing along. Immediately following, “The Boy with Two Hearts” hits an almost all-time high for the band, this nostalgia-drenched slice of pop perfection. If you were annoyed by the saccharine, treble-heavy, major melodies, best to sit this one out, too. Still, to dismiss the group’s craft for its aesthetics is foolish.
The final line of Milne’s poem “Spring Morning” provides the answer to his repeated question “Where am I going?”: “Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know.” Owen may still be “as stupid as I was before”, but his band, at least, knows where it’s going—straight to the hearts of its swelling ranks of fans.