Album Review: Lianne La Havas – Lianne La Havas

[Warner; 2020]

In a way, it feels right that Lianne La Havas’ new record is titled Lianne La Havas. While she’s never seemingly been one to play close to the vest, here her lyrics are even more precise and heartfelt, frequently tracking the journeys we take in the mercurial in-between stages of love; those painful conversations that happen just before the end of a relationship, or the quest for self-acceptance and being mature enough to wish the same for an ex. The album also feels like the first time La Havas has been able to craft the sound palette she truly wants, apparently working very closely with a tight-knit group of collaborators. This is the most obvious example yet of her and her band really conceiving these songs together, with nearly every minute displaying the tightness of drums, bass, and La Havas’ guitar.

It’s also, for better or worse, her most laid-back album yet, at least in terms of pacing and mood. There is a lackadaisical, head-bobbing groove to most tracks, starting with the early single, “Bittersweet”, and continuing on down through much of the album. On this album, La Havas favors slow-to-mid-tempo tracks, rarely breaking into anything too upbeat. This may be a dealbreaker for some who may want something more charging, with more pep or strut. She does kick up the BPM sometimes, as on the brilliantly catchy “Can’t Fight”, which has gorgeous harmonies and a killer earworm of a chorus, but more often she’s content to give us sensuous, moonlit songs that coast on thick bass, steady groovy percussion, spare guitar, and, of course, her stunning vocals.

And usually, that’s just fine. La Havas’ voice has never sounded better than it does on this album. Whether she’s providing a sassy attitude-filled turn on “Seven Times” or letting her voice crack huskily on the sad ballad “Paper Thin”, La Havas is always in full command of her instrument. On the slow-burning “Courage” she gives a perfectly-modulated vocal performance, going from subtle softness to towering emotion and back again, sometimes within the span of seconds. On “Read My Mind” she sounds appropriately alive and in love, and is then able to instantly go sexy and sensuous on “Green Papaya”.

Lianna La Havas does sometimes let its mood and pace get the better of it. “Green Papaya” has that sexy and sensuous vocal (and lyric, for that matter, with the chorus repeating, “Take me home / Let’s make real love”), but it’s slightly undone by the utter sparseness of the instrumental, as well as its abrupt ending. Meanwhile, La Havas seems to take to that laid-back jamming atmosphere a little too strongly sometimes. “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” is a pleasant song with lovely harmonies and great percussion, but it simply goes on too long. There is a moment where it truly feels like a perfect ending, and then the groove kicks back up for more than a minute, for no clear purpose. Similarly, “Seven Times” has a cool energy in its verses but is saddled with a profoundly repetitive chorus, which replays for over a minute at the end.

However, the two best songs on the album happen to be the longest. La Havas’ guitar playing has always felt at least slightly influenced by the art-rock and experimental rock scene, especially by way of groups like Radiohead, so it makes sense that she chooses to cover them here. Her rendition of “Weird Fishes” (which she and her band have actually been covering live for years) is immaculate, and perfectly structured. A quick fake-out at the beginning gives way to a more relaxed version than the original, with watery keys and guitars. Her voice sounds heavier than ever, emotive and elongated, and there’s a stunning a cappella bridge that then transitions to an enormous climax, with wailing walls of instrumentation as La Havas’ voice soars to bring us to the finish. It’s a truly breathtaking rendition, and possibly the superior version.

The other long track is the closer, “Sour Flower”. At almost seven minutes, it’s by far the longest song La Havas has ever recorded, but it grows over its runtime, starting with a complex but gentle guitar progression, then adding percussion, eventually transforming into a bright, confident chorus, which leads into a three-minute jam session to end the album – after La Havas asserts herself as her own best advocate. It’s a fittingly climactic and cathartic end to an album full of questioning and searching.

Lianne La Havas is a grower of an album, perhaps more than her first two records. It’s slow, patient, and deliberate in its pacing – almost to a fault. Its songs do occasionally overstay their welcome, but the production is pristine, and there are enough details in the instrumentation – like the weird sci-fi whistle in “Courage” or the flutes in “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” – that enliven the experience. The depth is increased by lyrics that are specific in their meditations on some of the rawest times in our lives. 

Most of all, though, it is a staggering showcase of La Havas as a singer. Her voice is so strong throughout, with her emotive Joni Mitchell-like vibrato, that it’s more than enough to save even some of the more lackluster moments. She sounds more comfortable than ever building tight, sometimes languorous songs with a skilled band who understand her vision. If nothing else, Lianne La Havas should be a testament to one of the best songwriters occupying that intersection of pop, R&B, and art rock right now.