Not FTBC, Lianne La Havas’ s/t is this year’s singer-songwriter masterpiece

Two of my favourite singer-songwriters, both wondrously talented ladies, Fiona Apple and Lianne La Havas, released albums this year, both after long gaps. In Apple’s case, it was nine years after the previous one, Idler Wheel. In Havas’ case, five years after Blood. Apple’s instrument of choice is the piano while Havas plays guitar. They are both amazing players…not in a Wakeman/Satch way but in terms of making the instrument virtually another arm of their body and fusing it seamlessly with their voice, vocally and compositionally.

Confession: I am a much bigger fan of Blood than Is Your Love Big Enough. Some critics seemed to slightly diss Blood as over-arranged. Not me, I loved every bit of these arrangements drenched in richness and style. I also loved the sparseness of Idler Wheel. Unlike critics and like a regular musophile, I don’t take absolute positions. It’s contextual: a great arranger can make a million instruments sing in one voice and likewise deliver the impact of a symphony with a sparse set up too.

I mention over-arranging because one of the ‘landmark’ points of critique in favour of Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Apple’s release this year) was how sparse it was, how DIY it was. I love both. As I have ‘confessed’ earlier, I love Tyler’s Igor album from last year. But this is 2020 and United States so any appreciation or criticism has to be political/ideological and here the case was that the earlier albums being supposedly over-arranged was men interfering with Apple’s vision and not letting her make the album she had deserved to (what a thing to say, ‘deserved to make’).

Unsurprisingly, this line of argument was conspicuously missing when Havas’ self/titled album came around a few months later. It was widely lauded…with no mention of the fact that this was, instead, recorded in three different locations in professional studios with male musicians playing on the album. I ain’t complaining – it testifies to the power of music to make these SJW critics completely forget their nonsensical arguments and simply enjoy what they are hearing.

And how can you not! I heard Paper Thin and Can’t Fight on Youtube and thereafter wasted no time in getting the full album. Gonna get the CD, if I can, when the covid situation clears up. For now, the sound is great even on the Youtube Music stream.

If I loved Paper Thin and Can’t Fight, I was simply blown away by Bittersweet. And Read My Mind…wow, the chorus is as good as any you will find on a vintage Stevie Wonder album. But as much as I love and admire the work of Wonder, one of my all time favourite artists, Havas has a more gorgeous and supple voice and I am not sure I would get the same emotions from a Wonder-rendition of Read My Mind.

Havas has a way of singing in the uber-staccato Amy Winehouse-influenced style that pervades all of contemporary pop and still sounding more legato than she really is. I normally find that Winehouse-y phrasing super annoying but Havas brings a combination of languid duskiness and raw soul to her vocals that make me overlook such considerations. Again, the power of music to make you forget about your ‘rules’.

This album is neither the raw sparseness of Is Your Love Big Enough or the dazzling lushness of Blood. It’s, simply, accomplished. The arrangements do in fact lean towards the sparse side…BUT they don’t SOUND sparse. The singing, playing, production all put together are so, so beautiful it doesn’t sound lo-fi in any way. A cliche comparison coming from me, but it is sort of like Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Not in terms of any musical similarities but in the way that the songs sound rich even with a limited instrumental palate because they are so beautifully performed and recorded, so dynamic even when they stick to the softer side of things (or because of that!).

That comparison sums up in another sense what this album sounds like. There is a seamless melange of influences current and past such that the album sounds, in essence, timeless. It’s an incredibly soulful set of songs recorded by a black Brit who likes to avoid being slotted in ‘soul’ but whose work reflects the spirit of R&B legends, living and dead. And not just R&B – Bittersweet evoked Erykah Badu for me.

But an even more stunning demonstration of both the range of Havas’ influences as well as the level at which her artistry operates is her cover of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes. Not every day that you hear somebody take a Radiohead track and make it absolutely her own.

Havas says the session where she and her band recorded Weird Fishes inspired her as to the direction of the new album. It’s not hard to see why, that’s how magical her cover is.

What follows continues to be wonderful though, if you’re like me, you have already found everything up to Weird Fishes so sumptuous you can hardly believe there is still more album to feast on. Problems of plenty. Stick around, though, and Sour Flower is the perfect closer.

In stark contrast to the media narrative around FTBC, Havas stands in quiet defiance of ongoing trends in music. They say the album format is dead and yet, she has delivered something that is not just an assortment of songs lumped together for no apparent reason but one that works together as one cohesive experience. They say arrangements is just too much dress and DIY yada yada, but she has recorded her album with loving crafts(wo)manship. They say it’s more about the sound and melodies and harmonies don’t really matter anymore (an argument intended to make musophiles like me shut up about the relative lack of those in FTBC), but Havas serves up generous portions of both. In a time when the media implore you, me, everyone to pick a side so that they can scream more hysteria about it and boost their ratings, Havas defiantly gives us an intensely personal perspective. And why not! When Nixon was being impeached, maybe Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd both had plenty to say about it but Genesis didn’t, nor did Yes, nor Renaissance. Are their albums regarded as less worthy today for not talking about the things the media told you to talk about?

Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those who goes, “I loved you until you said XYZ political stuff” on artists. I have remained a fan of Kangana Ranaut the actress (or Clint Eastwood the filmmaker) even as I disagreed more and more with their politics. If you want to go political, do so by all means. And even if it’s an award bait, I don’t care. Your album, your choice. But…likewise, my choice to like it or not which will have nothing to do with which side of the aisle you fall on.

In fact, in releasing this wonderful, wonderful album named, simply, after herself, in a mad, mad year like 2020, Lianne La Havas underlines a simple truth that musicians and musophiles know too well (and which can never get through the brains of the media talking heads) – music is much, much bigger than the moment we live in, bigger than the artists who make it or us the listeners who appreciate it. It was there before you or I emerged from the darkness and it will be there when we are gone there.

So why indeed should music have to remind us of CNN, Fox, Times Now etc? While all this stuff happens – what Annie Haslam described as a bad movie to me – let there be gorgeous, heartfelt music to nourish our souls and help us get through these times. Never stop playing, Lianne, pretty please!

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