I vividly remember the first time I saw London Grammar live. It was at Falls Festival Byron Bay in 2013/14 just as the band had exploded on the back of “Strong” and debut album If You Wait. With the sun having just set and vision from the stage obviously limited, frontwoman Hannah Reid politely asked to have the house lights put on to light the crowd. Taken aback by the completely packed amphitheatre, Reid let out an astonished and completely frank “oh, holy fuck”. It was honest, sincere and from that moment on London Grammar had the crowd, myself included, completely wrapped around their finger.
After significant inroads worldwide in 2013 and 2014, Reid’s vocal health took a hit, as the band’s touring declined and they retreated back to the studio to begin focusing on 2017’s follow up Truth is a Beautiful Thing. Now, more than a decade after first coming together as a band, the English three-piece return with Californian Soil. A noted progression from their second album, Californian Soil moves the band into a more production and dance-driven realm, while still utilising Reid’s vocals as the focal and driving point for each and every song.
The biggest step forward for the band between albums two and three is the emergence of Reid as the true leader of the band. Tired of the band not having a leader out front, Reid made it known to her bandmates Dan Rothman and Dot Major that the band needed a leader and it needed to be her. Happily obliging and noting that Reid was and always has been the leader of the band has allowed Reid to lead the band into a new age; one that tackles the ever-changing dynamic of what it’s like to be a woman, not only in the music industry but what the experience of being a woman truly is like in all realms.
Lead singles “Baby It’s You” and “Lose Your Head” place Californian Soil on a familiar path already well-trodden by the band: stunning vocals, as well as simplistic and understated instrumentation all brought together by a myriad of enchanting and cosmic production. “Baby It’s You” has an underlying hopefulness to it that brings the whole song together, while the percussion claps on “Lose Your Head” leads to a culminating oxymoron of chaos and clarity that sets a strong standard for the remainder of the album.
The titular single “Californian Soil” (a play on words of the Marlena Shaw classic “California Soul”) has a Massive Attack “Teardrop” vibe as the song brings to the forefront the themes of the album. Not straying too far from the sounds of “Californian Soil”, “Missing” is another subtle masterpiece at the album’s commencement that’ll bring loyal fans back asking for more.
A comment on the death of the American Dream and the rise of the social and political underbelly in the country over the past few years, Reid, Rothman and Major use Californian Soil to paint a picture of a torn, struggling and fractured country that, beneath all of its imperfections and flaws, still has a raw beauty ingrained into its lands, history, culture, landscapes and soil.
An absolute hidden dance banger, “How Does It Feel?” is the surprise on the album that makes the listener genuinely take notice of the progression of London Grammar since they broke out in early 2013. With an unrelenting bass backbeat, “How Does It Feel?” isn’t a typical dance track but will definitely lend its hand to being mixed into countless DJ sets over the coming 12 months. Throwing it back to If You Wait era London Grammar, “Call Your Friends” is the epitome of what the band has become known for: subtle and crisp love songs or cries for help, hidden behind delicate production and synths, matched with Reid’s undeniable vocal strength. Much like “Call Your Friends”, “Talking” is a throwback to early London Grammar, with a strong piano lead, subtle guitar picks and framing that paints a dramatic and mysterious story.
Album closer and potential peak is “America”. An honest four minutes from Reid as she explores the hidden beauty of a flawed country. Reid comes to terms with the fact the place that has promised hopes and dreams to so many, may not offer the same to her. It’s a slow burner and heartbreaker that brings the album full circle and highlights once again the absolute bread and butter that is London Grammar: simple instrumentation and Reid’s top-notch vocals.
One thing to take away from Californian Soil is the instant impression of strength the album propels. Not a ‘let’s go to the gym and get shredded’ strength, but a holistic strength one develops when being comfortable within their own self and what they’re doing; something London Grammar now well and truly have. With Reid now the leader of the pack, Californian Soil is a covert takedown of the times and practices of the past that much of the current world has been built around: toxic masculinity and misogyny. It’s an overwhelming rejection of these practices while proving that with sensitivity comes great power and strength.
London Grammar are no longer three shy twenty-somethings trying to work this music thing out. They’re a strong, united and recalibrated machine leading from the front, while keeping true to their roots and fans whom they ever so eloquently swore at in Byron Bay all those years back.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
California Soil is out Friday 16 April.