The thing about knowing some bands’ backgrounds before hearing them is that it can be hard to tell what you would have made of the music without that information. The songs on the LA duo Divisible’s debut are so entangled in my mind with the story of singer Shola AV’s journey to Ghana to reconcile with her father that the propulsive slink of the likes of “Living With a Ghost” or “Don’t Say Nothin’ Now” is inextricable from the parental absence at the centre of the narrative here, and its wide-ranging aftermath. It’s not that a song as good as the heated, intense “Calm, Collected” needs context to be effective, but it’d be hard not to admire how cunningly Divisible have balanced the competing demands of crafting a compelling, standalone song and advancing the narrative and emotional depth of the album.
Many of these songs are addressed to a male Other that could either be a father or a boyfriend — not in a creepy post-Gainsbourgian way, but as an acknowledgement that both romantic and familial love can be as much a wound as a comfort. At the root, Less Than Lion is about the way the emotionally damaged wrestle painfully with the blunt fact of needing other people. The aching “In Your Bones”, with its refrain of “just like (your/my) dad, (you/I) don’t show love”, is partly about the reasons Shola would want to seek out her father, but whoever she’s talking to probably doesn’t have as dramatic an excuse for the same kind of self-protective remoteness. From the other side of the world or just across town, parents here follow Philip Larkin’s dictum: they fuck you up.
By the time “Big Machines” offers a soaring, quasi-mythical take on how the world can feel huge and terrifying after a loved one leaves (and matches that fear with a determination to go to “the big big city” in pursuit), it’s clear that Less Than Lion is the work of fine, emotionally involving songwriters. Shola and her partner in crime, Albert Sadia, build these songs from the rhythm section up (Sadia’s drumming alone is hookier and more engaging than it has any right to be). And although they flesh most of these tracks out to conventional full-band instrumentation, the focus usually remains on the interplay of Sadia’s beats and Shola’s voice. The result is an album of ten pop songs (nothing here crosses the four-minute mark) of surprising compositional complexity and emotional intelligence. The fine cover of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” is actually the least interesting and moving song.
In a way, parts of Less Than Lion are reminiscent of the Mountain Goats’ masterful abuse survival narrative, The Sunset Tree. Shola’s absentee father isn’t depicted in nearly as monstrous a light as John Darnielle’s stepfather, but both are stories that start in stifled rage at mistreatment and end in something approaching forgiveness. Here, the somber dénouement of “The Cutting Room” may or may not involve the kind of terminal end that The Sunset Tree’s “Pale Green Things” did, but Shola sings “This is where we meet / This is when you leave / This is how the world collapses now” with such a fine-grained mix of acceptance and yearning that it’s just as final. When family hurts us, the natural human reaction is to be angry, to demand that they acknowledge on some level the wrongness of what they’ve done. What makes Less Than Lion — and Divisible — great is that it’s able to reconcile the knowledge that life often doesn’t provide that kind of justice with the love we can’t help feeling anyways.