Over the last 12 years or so, Lanterns on the Lake have forged and honed a singular sound and gradually found a niche in the indie pop landscape. Versions of Us is their fifth album, and it doesn’t sound all that different from the others: a rich, atmospheric milieu marked by dramatic chords, clattering drums, and blasts of distorted guitar tempered with shoegaze-inspired washes, Hazel Wilde’s vulnerable vocals, and cozy, folky sensibilities informed by the band’s Northern English heritage. They are signed to the Bella Union record label, which former Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde runs, and it would not be easy to imagine a more perfect fit.
With qualities like this, aesthetic consistency is not a bad trait to have. If anything, Lanterns on the Lake seem to have fought to maintain it. The creation of Versions of Us was fraught; an entire version of the album itself was recorded and scrapped. In the process, the group’s founding drummer left. What they’ve come up with, though, is a record that sounds especially suited to these fraught times while managing, after the impressive but sometimes unbearably bleak Spook the Herd (2020), to be their most accessible as well.
Lanterns on the Lake are the kind of group that can write a song called “String Theory” without it being pretentious on the one hand or hokey on the other. Wilde has never shied away from the heady aspects of existence. Her unique talent is in translating them into the everyday struggles and relationships of everyday working-class people. “So the theory goes / There’s more than one of us,” she sings on “String Theory” as guitarist/producer Paul Gregory picks out a U2-like arpeggio, “…Oh my God, I hope they’re right.” Her humor is typically world-weary and self-deprecating, but her wit is sharp enough, and the music anthemic enough to produce a sense of defiance rather than defeat.
“Rich Girls” employs a rolling breakbeat and moody synths as Wilde admits, “I’m feeling too much…writing these songs is just making it worse.” But she isn’t about to let go of her passion and livelihood, even if, as she says, “I wish I could fake it like those rich girls do.” The song is one of several on Versions of Us that, with their strong choruses, are the catchiest Lanterns on the Lake have made. The strongest of these is “Real Life”. Over pounding drums and Gregory’s bright guitar hook, Wilde sings of an imagined alternate future, where “all that I fantasized will be colorized”. Lest things get too sweet, the chorus kicks up some distortion and hazy synth effects. It’s as compact and effective a show of Lanterns on the Lake’s strengths and as near to a straight pop song as they’ve managed to date. Elsewhere, the bluesy “The Vatican” even swings a bit.
Despite these moments, Versions of Us is by no means Lanterns on the Lake’s jump into unbridled commercialism. One of their more difficult traits has always been a tendency to meander, and that is an issue with some of the songs here. The lead single, “The Likes of Us”, has all the ingredients – martial drums, a big chorus, dynamics – but somehow fails to make a huge impact. Notably, the band’s drum vacancy has been filled by Radiohead‘s Philip Selway, a Bella Union labelmate. His presence certainly lends prestige, but he’s never been a thumper in terms of playing style, and he sometimes gets buried in the instrumentation around him.
Wilde, though, has so such issues. One of the best and most surprising pleasures of Versions of Us is the newfound stridency and strength of her singing. She has previously sounded plaintive and delicate to a fault, but here she exudes palpable confidence. Bands can stretch themselves and grow without going off on tangents or completely overhauling their signature sound. Some that have mastered this are now considered institutions, and Versions of Us puts Lanterns on the Lake in a position to join those ranks.