AOTM September: LoneLady – Former Things

Album choices emerge for all sorts of reasons. Timings of releases, life and plans intervening, how you react to a particular piece of music, the vagaries of record dates v release dates. Some months I am struggling for a choice, like with Genesis Owusu where I had to trawl around the internet in mild desperation (though that didn’t turn out badly). Other months I’ve either had an album in mind for a while or, if I’m lucky, a few. Sometimes the mechanics of the choice aren’t really important but it feels like a significant part of why I got here this time round. 

This month started as a choice between LoneLady’s ‘Former Things‘ and Lou Hayter’s Private Sunshine. The latter was very much a summer record, and while one I really loved listening to, I wasn’t sure it had a lot of emotional or musical depth to it. This isn’t being unfair or unkind either, as it was a slice of great modern dancefloor pop. I tend to want something with some more chops when I know we’re going to dive deep into it here. Being away in July and August I also wanted to have something lined up so I wasn’t thrashing around way too late in the day, for my sake as much as others. But, of course, I still ended up – and still am, to an extent – in very unenjoyable mental patterns of questioning my choice, even after I’d ordered the CDs. This is partly due to Lump’s album coming out and me enjoying it so much, and then also Museum Of Love after it. But mainly it’s the case because while I really loved this album, I started to worry a lot about whether any of the rest of you would. Because it’s not in any way a straight-up warm, engaging listen in the way Jubilee was, so the comparison already felt stark and I have agonised more than is strictly helpful over that. But I realised that when I’ve second-guessed myself too much – hi Talvin, or indeed PSB – I’ve ended up going on something that’s not based on an original decision and regretted it. Plus if I love something, then I need to give much less of a shit about what others think, even if there’s a risk of a savaging. 

So what drove this choice? I’d had LoneLady – Mancunian Julie Campbell’s one-person outfit – on my radar since (There Is) No Logic surfaced in March this year. It really was love at first sight and one of my favourite singles of the year. Once the album followed, it already felt like a complete sweet spot for me: female vocals and solo artist, guitars, synths, drum machines, a feel of the post-industrial music of our youths, be it Manchester’s seminal bands or the more synth-driven sounds of Sheffield. For every time I think of New Order or Joy Division, I also think of the Human League. Would that first impression last? For me, it did, but I realised at the outset it wasn’t going to be something wrapping us up in soft wool and keeping us warm in the autumn nights. 

An interesting question to ask is: ‘would I have chosen Former Things’ if I’d heard Hinterland before it? I’m not sure what difference it would have made, but while there’s clearly a lineage, there’s quite a difference between that and the new record. It is definitely worth visiting, just to understand the step forward here. Hinterland really had guitar at its centre, but for Former Things it’s much more of a texture than its main instrument. But there’s as much similarity as difference, and it’s definitely a case that there’s progression here, which Campbell has talked about in the months before and after the release. Campbell relocated to London in 2016 with a residency – and studio space – at Somerset House which exposed her to an array of synths beyond her childhood favourite Yamaha keyboard. It started out as a plan to make ‘a techno record’ but it’s really wider than that, even if the dancefloor feel is strong. 

Compared to Campbell’s previous work I then referenced, it’s clear this is a step in a different direction. So much more synth driven, from the opening bars of the Catcher, with its jerky, machine-gun drums and notes, and paranoid, discordant lyrics that echoed regret  be it from the loss of childhood simplicity and emotion or the fear for existence: “O youthful wonder / it was all inside when I was a child / why does it fall so far away’? This was not an album that presented the listener with an easy experience. But it was – to me at least – enticing, a sort of attraction to the discomfort, so much in the same way that post-punk bands had in my younger days. Runnings towards this, as anyone that knows me, is a real contradiction given my avoidance of discomfort in many situations. But here we are. 

There’s a bleakness and starkness about the album that I could see as unwelcoming, but it’s also something that chimes with me. Despite my sunny disposition, I spend way too much time worrying about the world, its politics, my family, our future, and so this album felt like a strange sort of balm that my thoughts were being brought so clearly and often to a slice of someone’s creativity. When we think about Jubilee and *that podcast*, I see some synchronicity here. No Logic’s melodies, its metallic stabs and crisp percussion giving it a  foreboding: ‘dislocation, misdirection, only chaos and confusion’. I’m sure Adam Curtis is a fan. He would love Threats, probably the most extreme end of the menace that Former Things exhibits. It drips with paranoia and edginess, its industrial feel and avoidance of groove in favour of stuttering notes and bass squelches, it’s a stark, near-future world of suffering that leaps out: “I was a loyal sentinel / I could not leave my outpost / trapped in a dread condition / I did not heed the warning” as if Campbell is a helpless cog in the machine. This, if were not clear before, is not a summer BBQ album! 

But to just categorise all of Former Things in this vein is to not give it its due. There’s light and dark, groove and rhythm, movement and flow. The title track almost feels like an outlier, and certainly is musically, with its acoustic strums, strings and popping keys but like many of the albums we’ve encountered lately, the lyrics do not align with the music. Talk of ‘I used to see magic in everything / but that has gone away from me / I can’t find the remedy’. It looks back, like much of the album, to the innocence of childhood, or at least the reference of it. Campbell has talked much about how Hinterland’s use metaphor has moved into much more open lyrics that focus on her internal anxiety, angst, fear and worry. In many ways it’s a very private world laid bare for the listener. 

And yet if you sit with the album more than a few listens, there’s some musical riches. Time Time Time’s jerky late-night dancefloor moves and almost startling piano chords are majestic, and a track where the guitar sits like an 80s relic, slightly off-key and sat back into the mix. Fear Colours has a new-York electro vibe that I love, its synthesised vocals evoking Arthur Baker’s work and chords making me think of Technique, tracing that musical lineage back to the bands of Manchester past. Treasure is another favourite, a track that highlights something musically important for me: Campbell’s voice as an instrument. It echoes the fear, anxiety, propelling the songs along as the phrasing often cuts off notes and keeps in line with the feel of the song. It’s a really interesting device that I think adds to the feel of the whole album and comes up time and again. Terminal Ground closes with a cascade of dry notes, angry stabs and brash drums, as if it can’t let the listener rest, a stripped back track that nods to LoneLady’s previous albums and the surroundings they emerged from, in Manchester’s crumbling, post-industrial suburbs.  

And while it’s another refreshing 40-minute special in length, the tracks are more elongated here. 8 tracks mean an average of five minutes, rather than Jubilee’s two extra tracks for that month. But with such an electronic feel, a four-four sensibility, it doesn’t feel like you’re waiting for the tracks to finish much of the time. Such is the restrained energy and menace that you aren’t really allowed to settle. It doesn’t fly by in the way Genesis Owusu, or Japanese Breakfast or Arlo Parks did, but it’s not trying to. It’s such a different prospect to so much of what we have done before us, it was a compelling choice for that alone, even if I’m really risking it here. 

So this is a challenging listen, but one that I feel would be lazy to categorise as eight angular tracks that are designed to throw the listener off and put them outside a wall. It brings you in if you give it time.

8 thoughts on “AOTM September: LoneLady – Former Things

  1. Great write up as always Guy. As you know from a few Whats App chats I’ve found this one a challenge. It is hands down one of the oddest listening experiences I’ve had in a long time. On paper, it ticks so many of my personal boxes. Like nearly all of them. But the result is something that I’ve found surprisingly difficult to build a relationship with.

    This is just an initial share of my feelings as my feelings are changing constantly;

    – WTF is the album cover!?! I thought you’d chosen some Swedish Death Metal (again!). Is there a story with the cover artwork? Who signed that one off?
    – The opening 2 tracks of the album, to my ears, are the hardest, most angular tough listens on the album … why sequence them as tracks 1 and 2? I think this beats St Vincent sequencing ‘Chloe in the Afternoon’ as track 1 on Strange Mercy.
    – Tracks 1 and 2 sensitise me to stuttering, staccato, claustrophobia and paranoia … I am then carrying this into the rest of the album and treating it unfairly in response
    – Am I the only one that is finding this such hard work!? The reviews are glowing!
    – Tracks 3, 4, 6 and 7 are actually a joy to listen to in isolation and when they pop up on playlists I really enjoy them …
    – … but at the moment the sequencing of the album is really bothering me and detracting from my experience

    Ever the professional, I am soldiering on, I am diligently persevering with numerous play throughs and often repeat listens (though track 8 going straight round back to tracks 1 and 2 is a tough 3 track run!). It is revealing more each time. Watching some videos is also helping. I’ve not delved into previous stuff yet … maybe I will … ?

    It’s an interesting choice Guy. It will certainly cause some debate. I am keen to know what Nolan and David make of this. I am not sure anyone will sit on a fence with this one. I think it will be rapturous love or … what ever is on the other side of that fence right?

    1. Thanks for your quick response on this brother @misterstory. It’s fascinating how this really seems to have failed to hit the mark, not just for you but for, well, everyone else.

      What surprises me a bit is that this feels like all the right boxes for many things you all like, especially you and especially David. But also, I don’t disagree it’s quite a challenging listen for some time. But I also feel that right from listening to No Logic, while I found some of the songs (especially the opener, closer and Threats) harder to assimilate, I really loved the rest and the overall feel of the album. Perhaps I’m often drawn to these songs that feel riven with paranoia and edginess too. There’s also a hint of mid-00s electro house, with the synths which is no bad thing for me, but I get it could grate.

      I am amazed you don’t connect with No Logic. It was the first track I heard from the album back in Spring on (I think) 6 Music and I really loved it from the start. As one of the more accessible tracks I’d have thought you’d have enjoyed that. But there are some great songs on there, and if it’s ‘these bang on my tracks playlists’ then I’m cool with that. As you say, it’s not a fence sitter!

      I’d give that podcast a listen and read up a few things. As you say, the critics love it (though there aren’t many entries).

  2. So … as an update, I listened to the XS Noize podcast interview. I think it helped my understanding of the album. I’ve listened to it without The Catcher (track 1) and it helps massively. It does make No Logic more listenable. It does make the album more enjoyable. Good suggestion on the Podcast and manually excluding track 1!

    However, I’ve also realised that I have no idea what any of the songs are actually about. I’ve not listened to / engaged with this lyrically at all. Not deliberately of course, but I’ve only just realised that the music seems to have acted as a barrier to my engaging lyrically. That’s not happened with an Album of the Month for quite a while. I will listen with the lyrics in front of me to remedy this and try to dive a bit deeper.

    1. Well that’s good. I think the podcast did help. There’s another earlier one i want to listen to as well (Craig Parkinson’s Two Shots Podcast, but it’s from 2017) and if that gets you over the hump somewhat then I’m all for that. As David’s said – with St Vincent – sometimes an opening track can really colour your thoughts on an album (even if I like it).

      I’d have a look at the lyrics on Genius (other sources are available) as there’s some nuggets in there. It’s a lot about looking back to childhood and wondering when it all got so difficult. Why there’s so much anxiety and uncertainty in the world. It’s pretty dark sometimes, but it chimes with the music too. I’m hoping that’s a bit of an extra layer.

  3. I’ve been on such a journey with this record. I’m reasonably familiar with Lonelady’s work, and I was really wrongfooted on a first listen – it felt LESS accessible than her previous album. I was really struggling with it. Listening to the podcast with her really helped, and it gave the album some context.

    But it was one simple change that totally transformed it for me: skipping track 1, The Catcher. I’m afraid it might be, IMHO, one of the worst choices of opening song that I’ve heard on an album. Dischordant, with a melody that doesn’t even make sense at times, it’s incredibly hard work. WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?

    Anyway, skip to Track 2 and the excellent There Is No Logic, and suddenly I felt freed. And suddenly that run of excellent tunes from Logic to Former Things (an album highlight) to Time Time Time. And then the album really began to make sense to me.

    I still think there are some weak moments – mid point Threats, and closer Terminal Ground are Lonelady by numbers. But it’s really begun to work for me as a record, and I appreciate the time I’ve put into it, because I’ve definitely got something back.

    I don’t agree that her lyrics are up to much – they feel like they draw too heavily on the kind of obtuse post punk artists she’s so indebted to. But they fit the mood and they’re not intrusive.

    I know this is literally not the point of Lonelady (clue’s in the title, David, doh), but I’d really love to hear her working with another producer, or someone who could open her sound up a bit. She’s got real talent, but it is a narrow palate she draws from, and that is by its very definition quite limiting. But as she says on the podcast, she loves working on her own and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

    Anyway, got a lot to discuss on this one, so looking forward to podding 🙂

    1. Cheers for the response @davidhallison. I wasn’t aware you were familiar with her work, so you will have had a different experience to the rest of us. I’ve done the reverse, having gone through her previous work after this.

      I’m fascinated that the reaction to the first track is so strong. I really liked it as an entry point. It set things up well, with the intense, often dislocated feelings that accompany the music. It also sets a contrast to the other tracks, and without it I don’t think they’d have the same impact, at least to me. But I get why it may feel an odd choice.

      I also disagree that the lyrics aren’t up to much. They’re not Genesis’ wordplay, or JBrekkie’s insight but I think they match pretty much perfectly to the music.

      But I guess we’ll get to fight this out on the weekend!

  4. Late to the party as usual I’ve been really trying hard with this album, it’s been a bit of a grind. I’ve been waiting for the eureka moment. I’m still waiting…. any minute now. Until that point this is where I’m at:

    I think we can all agree that the first track is hard work and gives this album the wrong first impression; it like the album cover art fall hard into the bad choice camp.

    Over all many of my points are the same of those already highlighted by Brother Joey and Brother David.

    ‘There Is No’ logic would have been a much better start to this album. Firstly it’s a much better song, but also describes the album well in many ways. Where is the logic/structure? Going against the grain (sorry brother Guy) the tracks seem to drag and have an over all feel of trying too hard. The focus should have been placed on well executed songs. Often it feels that the songs are demos that the artist wanted to figure out what synth setting worked best, or which drum pattern to use? A common practice. Sadly a decision was never made and the final cut down version was never composed.

    A friend of mine shared my thoughts when I played her the album. She described it as false advertising. It’s just doesn’t deliver what at times you expect.

    The frustrating thing about this album is that there are some bright spots; the ​synth programming, fantastic vocal harmonies and great hooks. Sadly they sit amongst to much experimentation which side swipes what could be a great collection of songs. ‘No Logic’, ‘Time Time Time’ and ‘Fear Colours’ all could be good songs if cut down a bit, and in isolation aren’t that bad.

    ‘Former Things’ for me is the brightest spark on the album. I really like it.

    I can understand why David likes the vocal presentation in this. It touches on many of David’s 80’s favourites. To the extent that ,throughout my many listens I’ve often thought that if David had a band and he was the lead singer his singing style would be very similar. ‘Threats’ would be his lead single.

    The faith is still there with this. I look forward to us discussing this on the pod and me having my eureka moment. I really want to be wrong with this.

    1. Ooooooh Nolan makes some GREAT points here. The whole ‘demo’ thing is VERY interesting. think having heard her interviewed talking about her love of lo-fi and 4-track tape recording she would say ‘thats the whole point’ but cause she works in such isolation there’s nobody to put forward any other opinion? Who’s challenging her? Making her comfortable with being uncomfortable in developing some of these obviously amazing ideas.

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