In Review: Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas

The London singer-songwriter's bittersweet, self-titled third album cements her place as one today's greats.
Posted: 18 July 2020 Words: James Kilpin

When an artist returns with a new project after a relatively extended time away, it’s hard to know what to expect. But rather than signalling any drastic shift in sound or dramatic reinvention, the five years since the release of last album Blood have given Lianne La Havas not just a story to tell, but the requisite strength to tell it.

Her self-titled third album opens with ‘Bittersweet’, and the already brilliant lead single comes into its own when viewed in the context of the record as a whole. Not only does it clearly establish the story that we are about to hear – one of a relationship’s journey from excited beginning to fractured end – it also draws on the idea of rebirth that is central to what follows, picking up the “broken pieces” to rebuild.

In fact, the whole record could have been called Bittersweet. It’s a word that reflects the mood of the emotional journey that La Havas is going on, one that is clearly laid out across the album, flowing beautifully as it does from song to song. As it happens, the decision to simply call the album Lianne La Havas is by no means uninspired. It speaks to the central idea of self-acceptance, learning to define one’s self as an individual, rather than by one’s relationship to another. Ultimately, the title is more optimistic and positive than calling it Bittersweet would have been; La Havas is laying out her stall as if to say “This is who I am” rather than dwelling on or emphasising the more difficult aspects of the real-life experiences that shaped the music, and the journey that she has been on.

On occasion, the uplifting sound, underlying groove and musical lightness betray the vulnerability of the lyrics. The soulful sway of ‘Read My Mind’ makes complete sense as it captures the feeling of falling in love, likewise the sultry romance of ‘Green Papaya’ is reflected in its smooth and understated production. Yet when the mood of the story turns with ‘Can’t Fight', the music is (deliberately) slow to follow suit. Sonically, ‘Can’t Fight’ still feels light and optimistic, despite the apparent turmoil: “The things that I want and need / But they always seem to be at odds with me / Oh, why? When did heaven get this heavy?”. It’s a perfect musical representation of that feeling of knowing that something is wrong – “I knew that I should give you up, I tried to run but got my heart stuck” – but putting on a happy face, trying to maintain a sense of optimism, refusing to give in to the seemingly inevitable.

Similarly, the delicate ‘Paper Thin’ is a tender depiction of a strained relationship, a struggle to connect with somebody who won’t let you in, despite both of you understanding the fragility of one another. But even a song this delicate is underpinned by the groove of the shuffling jazz drums, the rawness isn't just laid bare. It is, in itself, trying to find that balance between optimism and anguish.

At the midpoint of the album, Radiohead cover ‘Weird Fishes’ feels pivotal. Like the original version, it’s a song that reflects a sense of helplessness, of being almost at rock bottom. And while at first glance it may not be the most obvious choice of cover, it’s such a natural fit. The song retains a lot of its unmistakable Radiohead essence, but La Havas’ deeper, brooding vocals make this story her own as it seamlessly sits thematically alongside the original compositions around it.

It’s also emblematic of La Havas’ willingness to draw inspiration from a diverse array of styles, as she often has in the past. But it feels even more pronounced on this third album: the flourishes of jazz instrumentation, the clear influence of classic soul, elements of Brazilian music, and an obvious love for classic R&B production, the latter particularly prominent on both ‘Please Don’t Make Me Cry’, built around a hip-hop style drum loop replete with reich textured layers and choral hums, and on ‘Seven Times’, a song that La Havas describes as her ‘Blu Cantrell moment’. And yet La Havas is also not afraid to strip things back to their most simple form when necessary, making perfect use of unembellished finger-picked guitar to accompany of her consistently stunning voice, a voice that beyond its technical perfection also manages to convey an array emotions with apparent ease.

Like any compelling story, this one needs a satisfactory end. And ‘Sour Flower’ delivers exactly that. The title of the track comes from a phrase that La Havas’ Jamaican great-grandmother used to say, ‘Your sour flower’ meaning your problem, your cross to bear. It’s the perfect album closer, encapsulating the whole mood and message of the record, as the mellow and downbeat intro transforms into an uplifting beacon of optimism. “I’m done settling for so much less than I knew I deserved” declares our protagonist, as she finds herself much closer to the sense of self- acceptance, self-love, and self-worth that she has been seeking throughout. As the extended jazzy outro fades and we’re left with sound of bongos and handclaps, La Havas’ voice interjects one final time with a laugh – “That's it, it's done”.

Lianne La Havas is out now on Warner Records. 

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