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.