Let’s talk about that title: NO BLUES. On first glance, it is a statement of absolutely positivity: there is no sorrow here. The fact that the title is rendered in caps lock complicates this reading. Coming from a band as self-aware and self-effacing as Los Campesinos!, the typographical choice is an arched eyebrow, a sly smile – in short, a quick way to say, “We’re here to give you more of the same.” In fact, the title is lifted from the opening salvo of “As Lucerne/The Low”, one of the album's desperate, morbid highlights. Ringleader Gareth David wails, “There is no blues that can sound quite as heartfelt as mine”, stretching that last word to acknowledge that LC! have taken complete and total ownership of their miserabilist reputation.
This sense of ownership has always been one of LC!’s greatest strengths. On paper, many of their songs sound like the maudlin wallowing of a particularly lonely teenager. A quick look at the lyrics of NO BLUES confirms this. Across these ten tracks, Gareth (any fan can tell you – everything is on a first-name basis with this band) indulges in a suicidal drowning fantasy (“Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)”); he calls on an ex-boyfriend (he may or may not be talking about himself) to “give us a song” (“Glue Me”); he calls the whole human race “a speck of dust in a bad god’s eye” (“A Portrait of the Trequartista as a Young Man”). But the sheer force of Gareth’s voice – its desperation, its piss and vinegar, its knack for wounded repartee – sells these moments of heartbreak and despair. A Los Campesinos! song exposes the aching teenage heart in all of us by refusing to give in to the all-too-common belief that a young adult pain is somehow a lesser pain. We may recognize the melodrama of our hurt (look again at the album’s title), but we also recognize that we still really hurt.
Los Camp’s other greatest strength is the band’s facility with pop hooks of all kinds. Gareth’s vocals and lyrics may be the vanguard of any LC! song, but these selfsame words become all the more arresting and affecting when carried forward by the rest of the band’s songwriting, an insidiously catchy grab bag of power-pop that draws on everything from the art-damaged riffs of Pavement to the synthesized balladry of Drake. NO BLUES tinkers with the traditional formula a bit, tending as it does toward fuller production and more straightforward pop sounds – the transition is especially noticeable coming after 2011’s Hello Sadness, which found the band in a slower, moodier place, musically. But LC! tackle these songs with aplomb, trafficking in serpentine post-punk guitars (“Avocado, Baby!”), stadium-smashing anthems (“What Death Leaves Behind”), piano-based theatrics (the aforementioned “Selling Rope”), and brooding bombast (“Glue Me”).
Maybe, this time around, Los Campesinos! had top 40 aspirations: “For Flotsam” has everything it needs to explode out of a car stereo, including acoustic strumming, whirlwind synths, and a suitably blank chorus, onto which any lonely heart can project its specific longings (“Knees knocking and / blood flowing, so / I want you to know / that I want to”). Then again, perhaps these aspirations are only imagined: the song, after all, is saddled with a supremely clever maritime metaphor at its center and some of Gareth’s trademark soccer references. But that’s Los Campesinos! in a nutshell: straight-up pop music made by a bunch of sadsack weirdos with eclectic record collections and well-stocked bookshelves. We wouldn’t have them any other way.