Album Review: Los Campesinos! – ‘Hello Sadness’

Clinging to childish trappings, but with a morbid slant

Despite all the billions the Simon Cowell Institute For Contestant Mutation Research has thrown at saving Ronan Parke from the career slaughterhouse that is puberty, you just can’t fight it: everything grows up. Even eternal toddler-pop combo [a]Los Campesinos![/a], once Cardiff’s twee-core tearaways blitzed off their wheelie-sneakers on choruses made of cherryade and crackling candy. There were dark and demented undercurrents to songs like ‘We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives’, but musically their 2008 debut ‘Hold On Now, Youngster…’ fizzed along with a youthful effervescence you either found as adorable as the YouTube baby who thinks a magazine is a broken iPad or made you feel like you were having acid jelly poured into your eyeballs while a hyperactive kitten clawed wildly at your testicles/ovaries.

With their idyllic/naive views on life and love muddied by 2010’s ‘Romance Is Boring’ and having lost ludicrously fragrant violinist Harriet Campesinos! to university, the ogre of adulthood had crept from under the bed and started to throttle them. For with age and wisdom has come ennui, agonies. This fourth studio album isn’t just named like an undergraduate essay on Sylvia Plath, it’s drenched in bleak romantic imagery and existential dolour.

Life Is A Long Time’, ‘Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions)’, ‘Hate For The Island’: the song titles alone read like chapter headings of a [a]Lou Reed[/a] autobiography ghost-written by Lars Von Trier. LC! still cling to their childish trappings, but with a morbid slant – witness the funereal anthem ‘Baby I Got The Death Rattle’.

We need to talk about Gareth. Sweet, yelpy wee Gareth Campesinos!, now a churning urn of angst. We spotted him on a bus in ‘By Your Hand’ (“spitting cusses at my face reflected in the windscreen pane”) and predicting his own murder of passion. We’ve heard him bemoaning that “This dripping from my broken heart is never running dry” on the title track and expounding desolate philosophies on ‘Life Is A Long Time’: “Life is a long time/Too long, to my mind… It starts pretty rough and ends up even worse”. Nurse! The Cipralex!

As the album progresses, his mania spirals. Come ‘Every Defeat…’ he’s gazing at old family photos and seeing made-up corpses. On ‘Hate For The Island’ he tells of an insane ex-lover being buried on a beach. On ‘The Black Bird, The Dark Slope’ he imagines aviary enemies feeding on his flesh like a cross between Hitchcock and Hostel: “The blackbird dips his beak in blood and writes his thoughts and curse across the bones that are his jailer and my ribcage”. If you’re reading this within frisking distance of Gareth, we’d recommend you calmly remove from his person any sharp items and shoelaces.

Not that Gareth’s descent into derangement makes ‘Hello Sadness’ a sad album. The kids of the LC! still bristle with a fundamental melodic vibrancy, and the hand-in-hand maturing of music-writer Tom Campesinos! into the realms of Sonic Youth thrashes, cranky synthetics and handclaps, harmonium, violin and bar-room piano gives the record a gravitas to counterpoint Gareth’s lyrical anguish. So ‘By Your Hand’ fuses Arcade Fire grandiosity with Grouplove gang-chants, ‘Every Defeat…’ cloaks itself in a graceful grunge fug redolent of [a]Death Cab For Cutie[/a] and closer ‘Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt II’ combines [a]Jeff Buckley[/a] guitar delicacies with steam-engine percussion and gospel chorals.

Surprises? Oh, plenty. That ‘To Tundra’ is as atmospheric as its title. That ‘Baby I Got The Death Rattle’ could be Bright Eyes clattering around Tom Waits’ junkshop. And that Los Campesinos! could well be a British [a]The National[/a]. ‘Hello Sadness’, goodbye childlike obscurity.

Mark Beaumont