Ladies and gentlemen. Children of all ages. Cats. Dogs. Animals of all kind. Please turn your attention to the stage. Put your hands together. Be ready to give a warm welcome. Cheer as loud as you can. Get out of your seats. And say hello to … Ms. Lianne La Havas!
Ms. Lianne La Havas is different than Lianne La Havas, of course. The latter was pretty great herself, what with 2012’s excitingly subtle and mildly underrated Is Your Love Big Enough? Led by an infectious title track with an even more infectious clap-your-hands chorus cadence, that set announced La Havas as a songwriting beauty. Armed with her electric guitar and an entire ton of complicated emotions, she went from mysteriously cute (“Au Cinema”) to fearlessly in love (“Age”) to desperately heartbroken (“Lost & Found”) and she did so with a grace and maturity that left No Room For Doubt about precisely how far her talents could evolve.
Ms. Lianne La Havas, though? She’s the one at the forefront of the nearly flawless Blood. Gone are those apprehensive tones that painted her debut with affect and precision. In is a ringing endorsement from Prince and a power so prominent, you have to check your iTunes every now and then to make sure this isn’t some off-handed Beyonce or Alicia Keys collection that you’ve been listening to. Out is a reliance on her timid, interesting and fruitful guitar noodling. Taking its place is a kind of super-production that puts the groove front and center and takes the bass volume to 12. If Lianne La Havas was a really good folk-soul queen in 2012, Ms. Lianne La Havas is a bona fide neo-R&B star in 2015.
And this is proven no less than two tracks into Blood. “Green & Gold” has a crossover appeal that La Havas lacked before, its slithering bass line adding a level of funk that the singer probably didn’t even know she had. It’s the perfect combination of where she was and where she is, the track easing itself in with her subdued electric guitar before essentially being buried in the mix in favor of a slinky feel that comes to life with the help of a horn section. You can’t not two-step to it.
Meanwhile, opener “Unstoppable” ditches the six-string altogether, allowing the singer to grab the mic and dance. The hook is weirdly reminiscent of Keys’ “Unbreakable” (which isn’t a bad thing) and it serves as a cathartic moment each time La Havas steps up and belts her proclamation. She’s not wondering if anyone’s love is big enough anymore; she’s insisting that it already is. The same applies to “Grow”, which has a hook that offers echoes of another Keys track from As I Am, “I Need You”, complete with world-dominating voice and aggressive production.
Yet even when that aggression dies down, and the singer gets back to where she started, the vibe is different. “Ghost” strips things back to the way they used to be, guitar and singer, but there are little touches to the background that were previously missing (namely, the eerie effects that fade in and out as she sings). Plus, she’s aged. When she intones, “Lost somewhere between a foe and friend, round and round again,” that voice is weathered just a little bit more than it was before. There’s a pain she’s accrued that took the place of the charming naivety often heard on her debut.
“Good Goodbye” is where that mix of past and present cuts deepest. The backing strings and keys aren’t things she had at her disposal before and neither is the impact of a line like “I’ve never seen you cry.” She says it with that trademark delicate voice, but this time it’s accompanied by the stare of a cold-blooded murderer. Plus, holy shit, it’s sad. And in a rare turn of events for pop music, the grandiose production values do the singer favors, adding drama and prestige to a tune that could have been just another depressing song from just another artist with just another guitar.
Still, what makes Blood great — and not just good — is that turn toward a soulful upbeat that La Havas once lacked. “Tokyo” is enigmatic and fun. It finds the sweet spot between Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Jill Scott’s The Light Of The Sun, calling upon The Purple One’s influence with a slap-friendly bass line throughout the chorus and atmospherics that paint each verse with intrigue. Second single “What You Don’t Do” modernizes doo-wop and begs to be performed with a back line of Mrs. Carter’s dancers. When she hits “Don’t tell the whole world / Just wanna be your girl”, you can hear how much she’s going for it. The emotion is there. The inhibition is there. The power is there. The desire is there. The passion is there.
Which sums up Blood better than anything else. Emotion. Inhibition. Power. Desire. Passion. If Is Your Love Big Enough? was designed to get our attention, Blood is designed to keep it. The steps forward here are borderline transcendent for an artist who once appeared to have no problem fading into the back, blending in with the noises and the pain around her. This time around, that artist has taken charge, immersing herself in soul music while staying true to her folk roots. It’s the best kind of rhythm and blues: no reservations, no fear, no bounds, no parameters.
It’s not Lianne La Havas. It’s Ms. Lianne La Havas.