London Grammar have long suffered from a bounty of comparisons, fair or otherwise. Even as they released their earliest singles leading up to their debut, 2013’s If You Wait, listeners were quick to compare the English trio’s cool, spare beats and skeletal arrangements to acts like the xx, and Hannah Reid’s fluttering vocals to those of Florence Welch. This latter comparison is the more superficial and less enlightening of the two; while the similarities between the two vocalists’ deep, soulful tones may indeed be striking, it ultimately tells us little about the kind of music London Grammar produce.
Charges of unoriginality start to land somewhat more convincingly upon examining the backing arrangements that frame her performances, courtesy of Dot Major and Dan Rothman. It is here that things begin sounding a bit too familiar, or more importantly, a bit too safe. Even more so than their debut, the band’s sophomore outing Truth is a Beautiful Thing pushes Reid’s voice to center stage, adorning it only with conservative pinpricks of Rothman’s luminescent guitar lines, Major’s sharp yet glacial beats, and demure piano and string arrangements. This is a wise choice insofar as her performances are the most incisive tool in their arsenal; it is hard to protest too much when Reid glides and twirls her way up her vocal register on “Rooting For You”, for instance.
Beautiful as it all may be, however, the compositions as a whole lack something for innovation. Too often, the songs condense what were once the chicest trends in indie pop, R&B, and electronica — yes, particularly those championed by the likes of the xx at the tail-end of the 2000s — and package them in a big tent format, as though intended to alienate as few people as possible. On tracks like “Wild Eyed” and “Oh Woman Oh Man”, the production atmospherics are cool without ever threatening to become too chilly, and the mellow soul-rock of the choruses brood briefly before evaporating weightlessly. “Non Believer” wields its darkness with somewhat more conviction, leading with punchier beats and concluding with Bon Iver-style vocoder processing. In general, though, the arrangements can come across as trendy but tepid, tasteful yet lukewarm, the lack of risks becoming a real liability.
Still, Truth is not without its strong moments, particularly when the band dares to step beyond its reserved melancholy and dabble in euphoria. “Big Picture” finds the trio sounding more self-assured than ever, with Major’s muted 4/4 rhythms helping elevate the track into an anthem both somber and bright. “Don’t say you ever loved me / Don’t say you ever cared”, Reid sings coolly, echoing Kate Bush’s “The Big Sky” in sentiment if not quite in sound. The rousing beats of “Bones of Ribbon” likewise make the track more affecting than usual, and the second half of “Hell to the Liars” evinces enough confidence to jam out without Reid as a crutch, emerging all the more compelling for it. While Reid’s vocals are the band’s clearest asset, then, London Grammar’s performances are at their finest when not so blatantly lopsided.
London Grammar have proven themselves more than capable of writing moving, resolutely human songs; the above-mentioned highlights, along with older tracks like “Wasting My Young Years” and their excellent 2013 Disclosure collaboration, “Help Me Lose My Mind”, clearly demonstrate as much. The manner in which they present their material often leans too heavily on the tried-and-tested tastemakers of years past, however, dulling and dampening their impact. While compelling, the trio did not exactly sound wildly original when they first emerged in 2013; in 2017, it is even harder to find a context for their work. London Grammar’s music remains gorgeous, but the band too often limits themselves with their own conservatism.