Los Campesinos! released their third album a decade ago and Getintothis’ Matthew Eland tries to work out if romance really is boring.
Los Campesinos! can make you ponder. ‘But let’s talk about you for a minute‘ they sing.
It’s a line that’s worthy of closer study, not least because Los Campesinos! put a lot of thought into their opening (and closing) lyrics.
Firstly, it’s a good joke: the record that follows – Romance Is Boring, released in 2010 – is haunted by excruciating personal detail, and it’s a wry touch of mischief for Gareth to get in the first dig about his own self-absorption.
Secondly, the lyrics in this album are inspired by a secondary, silent protagonist, whose dysfunctional relationship with the narrator (as we’ll refer to Gareth from now on, lest we fall into the trap of believing that we have all the facts about someone’s life just because we’ve listened to a particular album ten-thousand times) is dissected and examined.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it could be argued that the line breaks the fourth wall. Romance Is Boring examines things that most of us probably wouldn’t discuss with our mates, let alone put on an album for the world to hear.
These are subjects that resonate, that people can identify with, even if we don’t want to admit it.
It’s often said that not many people like Los Campesinos!, but those who do like them, REALLY like them. And of those people, it’s likely due to one of their albums coming at an opportune moment in their life.
It’s easy to imagine plenty hearing this record, with all its specificity, and merging their own experiences into it.
Opening track In Media Res sets up the album’s key themes early: love and hate, sex and death. It also features the first moment of ecstatic transcendence followed by earthly abasement: the narrator imagines being dropped from the wing of an aircraft and his impact splatter being read to divine the initials of his bereaved partner’s future spouse.
He then wakes up in the back seat of a car, soaked to the collarbone from the frost melted on the window, all in sight of a crucifix hanging from the rear view mirror.
God, we’ll come to learn, is the third wheel breathing on the shoulders of our protagonists throughout.
Musically, the track is a stylistic change from the band’s two previous albums, which were characterised by excitable, e-number hyperactivity. This tune is a marked change of pace, a mid-paced chugger with a spooky, swelling glockenspiel interlude.
Their former stylings are more apparent on the subsequent track, There Are Listed Buildings: an upbeat number, with a catchy, gang-vocal refrain.
The title track is next. This one has more of a nineties, Suede feel to it, more of a rocky stomp.
At times during the record you can feel the group trying on different hats – they’re trying to find their musical voice, looking to see what sticks.
Lyrically though, it’s of a piece with the whole: Romance Is Boring is about co-dependency and stagnation, about two people exploiting each other’s personality flaws to avoid discussing the inconvenient problems in their relationship.
The nautical theme that recurs throughout the album is strong here. They are ‘two ships that pass in the night’. He is a ‘pleasure cruise’ and she is a trawler with ‘nets empty’, returning time and again straight back to the narrator.
This is also an allusion to Trawl by B.S. Johnson, a 1966 novel in which the author, hoping for some kind of redemption, reflects upon a series of failed relationships during a three-week ocean voyage. Sound familiar?
Track 4 is notable in a different sense. We’ve Got Your Back (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2) is the first on the album to prominently feature Aleks Campesinos!, whose role on this record is much reduced from the previous two. On Hold On Now, Youngster and We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, the call-and-response set-up was much more prevalent.
Indeed, in many ways RiB marks the end of Los Campesinos! version 1, and the ascendance of Gareth’s more confessional style of songwriting. Aleks would leave at the end of this album cycle to return to her studies, and the original drummer, Ollie, would follow not long after.
Now, the reasons for Ollie’s departure remain unclear, but his valedictory statement was posted on the band’s blog with a reference to the Pavement song Westie Can Drum, which features the lyric ‘Westie…You cannot drum!’ Which, reading between the lines, sounds like quite a brutal dismissal.
Granted, Ollie’s drumming style was initially quite rudimentary, but it gave the band the pace and energy that made their name. Replacement Rob’s technique is more precise and professional, but on later releases they lost the ramshackle energy on display here.
Meanwhile, five songs in and there’s our first touch of levity. Amid all the heartache there’s time for a flight of fancy, where the narrator gains Maltese citizenship, scores the winning goal in a world cup qualifier, and becomes king of the country.
It’s one of many references to football in the band’s back catalogue, which became more prevalent after HON,Y. This seems to be a conscious decision, to help distance themselves from the cringey ‘tweecore’ tag that they pushed earlier in their career, not least with their track The International Tweecore Underground.
Straight in at 101 is a live favourite and one of their most straightforward tracks. It ends with the narrator’s spoken-word tale of gathering his friends and family around the television to watch ‘The talking heads count down the most heart-wrenching breakups of all time’, only to find that he’s not made the list.
Who Fell Asleep In strikes a more plaintive note, and serves as a caveat that despite all the talk of the partner rebelling from her religious upbringing, she still ‘feels her god breathe on her shoulder’ every time the narrator kisses her.
I Warned You: Do Not Make an Enemy of Me finds the group at their most belligerently passive aggressive, and showcases how venomous they could be. It’s also their most experimental song, full of stabbing riffs and choppy time changes, and more complicated than anything in their subsequent career.
I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know kicks off a remarkable run of songs, where all the themes coalesce.
Despite this, the lyrics also become more ambiguous, and the narrative thread becomes more uncertain; proof that no matter how nakedly specific we think the narrator has been in airing his dirty laundry, we don’t know the full story.
The other thing about I Just Sighed… is that it might – might – be the group’s best song. It’s certainly up there.
It starts with an accelerated sensory-overload intro that could be every song they’ve ever done sped up and played on top of each other. This soon settles into a propulsive sense of urgency, over which the narrator throws a little bit of everything at us.
There’s melodrama (‘Me rolling, writhing on the floor, stared daggers pulled from my thoracic wall‘), despair (‘I’ve written eulogies in guestbooks of galleries/In the hope that you might pass‘) and the unhealthy confluence of sex and death (‘Just let me be the one that/Keeps track of the moles on your back‘), all culminating in an anthemic blow-out.
A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State; or, Letters from Me to Charlotte revisits a character who also appears in We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.
On the surface it seems to be about a platonic relationship that’s turned into something else, but there are also overtones of domestic violence, with a third party’s golden bruise a ‘private joke they told no others’.
It’s also interesting that this is the second Los Campesinos! track referencing Charlotte where the narrator threatens his romantic rivals with violence (‘You said he got his teeth fixed/I’m gonna break them‘).
It’s worth drawing a parallel here with Fight Like Apes, a band with whom Los Campesinos! Share many similarities. Like Los Campesinos!, their romantic frustrations also manifested themselves in sometimes violent, comic imagery.
The life cycle of their career also played out against the recent upheavals in the record industry: they started as a MySpace band, played through an era where indie/guitar music lost cultural prominence, and saw the rise in streaming.
Both bands had women occupying prominent positions in their line-up. They also worked with John Goodmanson: as well as RiB, he also produced Fight Like Apes’ debut.
More importantly though is that the albums they made have a very definite sense of time and place. Lyrically, each release was a snapshot of a particular time, where everything going on at that moment went into the lyrical pot. This gives a sense of specificity. For the long-time listener – particularly those in a similar age group to these bands – this gives the sense that you’re growing up together.
Of course, the main difference between Los Campesinos! and Fight Like Apes is that the latter have since called it a day.
It’s difficult to maintain a career in an age when you’re no longer a buzz band. That said, we’d always hoped that Fight Like Apes would adopt the Half Man Half Biscuit model – that of playing occasional one-off gigs and releasing an album every three years or so – just so we could see where they’re at.
So far, Los Campesinos! Have followed this format. Their last album, Sick Scenes (2017), was very much concerned with the group in their mid-thirties, a decade on from their heady noughties heyday (‘But things change, now Stella’s a lager/And boy, she’s always downed‘).
For all their pessimism on that latest release, it can’t be said that they don’t have a good grasp of the sweep of time on RiB. On The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future, the narrator sings about being stood on the edge of the ocean, the vast expanse ahead recalling the glacial sweep of time (‘I can see five-hundred years dead set ahead of me/Five-hundred behind, a thousand years in perfect symmetry‘) while being flanked on either side by crazy golf courses.
If there’s ever a metaphor for the ridiculousness of life, it’s that. It’s also a moment of simple profundity in their most lyrically dense and novelistic song, a tale of eating disorders and mortality in a tawdry seaside town.
After the emotional intensity of the previous track, This Is a Flag. There Is No Wind offers a bit of sunlight, musically at least. Lyrically, it’s another tale of co-dependency, with the two protagonists unable to keep their hands off each other, even in spite of an album’s worth of evidence that it’s a bad idea.
This incompatibility is summarised in the synth-led final track Coda: A Burn Scar in the Shape of the Sooner State. We’ve discussed previously how the first and last lines aren’t accidental on LC! records, and here it’s this:
‘I can’t believe I chose the mountains every time you chose the sea’.
This neatly summarises the central narrative of the album in a metaphorical sense, but could there also be a more literal meaning? Doesn’t the protagonist of The Sea Is a Good Place… quite literally walk into it?
It also reflects the position of the band ten years on from this, their most accomplished record. Subsequent releases Hello Sadness (2011), No Blues (2013) and the aforementioned Sick Scenes were all more concise and streamlined.
This was partly a response to the maximalism of RiB, and partly out of necessity: with day jobs, mortgages and real life looming, there wasn’t as much freedom to experiment, even though all three were good records.
In the years after Romance Is Boring, vocalist Aleks, bassist Ellen and drummer Ollie would all leave the group, and so the line-up is much changed since then.
It’s not as easy to be a mid-level touring group any more. It’s good, then, that they continue to choose the striving and the struggle of the mountains over the capitulation of the sea. T
hey’ll regroup on 14/15 February 2020 to play RiB in full, and after that it’s anyone’s guess.
Hopefully, though, this is just the thing to kick-start a new era of Los Campesinos!. They’re a band that many have grown up with, one lots of people love: a romance that’s never been boring.