Los Campesinos! has never been a band to take life lying down. Over the course of four albums in as many years, the Welsh band has taken the personal and existential crises facing aimless, terrified twentysomethings and channeled them into manic, occasionally bruising, sugar-rush anthems. Although 2011’s wobbly Hello Sadness suggested the band’s future was unclear – and indeed, four members of the still-sprawling band have departed since 2010 – Los Campesinos! are hardly going quietly into the night, as last year’s terrific, defiant No Blues demonstrated.
Romance Is Boring, the band’s previous high-water mark, was infused with an ambitious, go-for-broke fervor that rendered the album – even its missteps – a thrilling listen. No Blues is also exhilarating, but for the opposite reason. Here, the band sounds more focused than ever before, their not-inconsiderable energy narrowed into a laser beam that could probably bore through cement walls. There’s not an inch of slack or excess in sight: “For Flotsam” kicks down the door with a thunderous statement of purpose, an intensity that doesn’t let up until the tremendous climax of “Selling Rope,” the band’s strongest closer since its debut, brings the entire album to a full, decisive stop. Death, sexual frustration, and misfortune, as ever, are foremost in lyricist Gareth Campesinos’ mind (“I proofread the book of Job for the Lord,” he dryly proclaims at one point), but there’s a new kind of drive to his mile-a-minute delivery – the call-and-response vocals on “What Death Leaves Behind,” for instance, crash across each other like waves in a nor’easter, as though Gareth can see the end ahead, as though there’s not a second to waste. Los Campesinos! have always trafficked in chaos, but never chaos this tightly wound.
And yet, in the midst of this, the band’s color palette has expanded in a way that is at times truly jaw-dropping: is that an organ filling out “Cemetery Gaits”? And horns? Are those steel drums carrying the main riff of “As Lucerne” – and four part harmonies on the chorus? Is that a fucking cheerleading squad on “Avocado, Baby”?! But it all works, partially because those arrangements are so expertly blended into the band’s sound, and partially because No Blues is made up of six of the band’s best songs to date (and the other four are none too shabby). The steadily building mid-album run of “Glue Me,” “As Lucerne/The Low,” and “Avocado, Baby” is arguably the best straight fifteen minutes of music in 2013, and one that culminates in one of the most infectious songs Los Campesinos has ever written (no small feat considering this is a band whose oeuvre includes, for example, this song. Or this one). Gareth’s gallows humor has rarely been more chortle-worthy (“a widow sobs, more widows weep, while we intrude like a widow’s peak,” he sings of funeral crashers on “Cemetery Gaits”), nor, in the finale’s nihilistic vision of suicide – “there’s no ticker tape, no pearly gate, no carnival and no parade, just one, one for sorrow” – more devastating. And the band’s hooks are as plentiful and mercilessly catchy as ever. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we hear from Los Campesinos!. But if it is, we can rest assured that they went down swinging.
Track picks: “For Flotsam,” “What Death Leaves Behind,” “Avocado, Baby”