Given the icy pace and prevailing mournfulness of London Grammar’s last album, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, the British trio naming their third record Californian Soil might suggest they were warming up a bit. Not quite: a reluctance to relinquish their sonic crutches – heavily reverbed electric guitars, meandering melodies and restraint masquerading as reverence – and a lyrical propensity for gloominess means things haven’t thawed much.
There is some new bite, though. The title track, with its crunchy percussion, upfront instrumentation and clear nods to Massive Attack’s Teardrops, has greater presence than the band’s usual spectral fare. Likewise, when singer Hannah Reid’s soprano becomes too ghostly, as on Lose Your Head and All My Love, it’s grounded by a dusty guitar riff, padded synth or shuffling beat. The groove-led How Does It Feel, co-produced by hitmaker Steve Mac, is an adept balancing act between the band’s signature sound and big pop production. Highlight track Lord It’s a Feeling is a stunning meditation on infidelity and gaslighting that borrows from trance and trip-hop, making for a strange but exhilarating ballad.
Reid has said Californian Soil is about her gaining possession of her life, in part after she almost quit the “sexist and exploitative” music industry in 2019. The song Talking touches on disenfranchisement (“Leaders mean nothing to me … None of them true at the seams”) and I Need the Night shrugs off toxic exes and sanctifies femininity (“There is a whisper that our God is a she”). But any sense of actual assertiveness is quashed by the group’s usual musical anchors, bland imagery and boilerplate emoting. Moments of excitement notwithstanding, the result is a frustratingly tentative step from a band who promised bolder strides this time around.