There’s an instructive comparison to be made between the title of Let’s Eat Grandma’s third album and that of their debut. Released in 2016, the latter was called I, Gemini, which seemed to fit perfectly. The two 16-year-old schoolfriends who made it liked to present themselves like twins, or even aspects of the same person. They wore matching outfits and makeup. On stage, they occasionally performed with their long hair obscuring their faces so you couldn’t tell one from the other. Filled with songs ostensibly concerning mushrooms, fairytales and various childhood terrors, I, Gemini really seemed to be an album about the peculiarly intense friendships that develop among teens. With its unorthodox song structures, sudden diversions into rapping and abundance of instruments played in a way that suggested the duo prized exploration over virtuosity, it sounded like a spiffed-up version of something two talented and imaginative kids might tape together over long hours in a bedroom. With its impenetrable in-jokes expressed through lyrical non-sequiturs, listening to it sometimes felt like eavesdropping on a secret society of two. Their debut single Deep Six Textbook opened with the sound of Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth playing a complex clapping game.
Six years on, Two Ribbons is a title that suggests two separate entities that may or may not be entwined. And it is a markedly different album made in markedly different circumstances. After attempting to harness their debut’s weirdness to a more straightforward electronic approach on 2018’s Ivor Novello-nominated I’m All Ears, its successor is all-out pop: big, neon-hued synthesisers pitched somewhere between jubilant 80s hits and hands-in-the-air dancefloor breakdowns; acoustic ballads that swell to grand climaxes. The only real sonic connection with their debut is Hollingworth and Walton’s artless, untutored voices, although the fact that it feels striking hearing a pop song sung by someone who sounds like a human being perhaps says less about Let’s Eat Grandma than it does about the current state of pop.
In 2019, on the eve of a US tour to promote I’m All Ears, Hollingworth’s boyfriend died of bone cancer aged 22. His death obviously impacts on Two Ribbons. There’s an instrumental called In the Cemetery; behind Watching You Go’s Giorgio Moroder-ish bass and upward-spiralling chorus lurks a song about the bewildering manifestations of grief, from insisting that life must go on as before (“I’m not staying in, I’m not wasting it, I’m not”) to longing for oblivion: “I want to shed myself and lay back in the earth sometimes,” Hollingworth sings. But it ultimately feels less like an album about death than about navigating the changing nature of friendship with age: the lessening of that intense early teen bond captured on I, Gemini, as the rest of life gets in the way: “We’re changing,” as Hollingworth sings on the title track, “like two ribbons, still woven, although we’re fraying.”
It doesn’t automatically follow that two twentysomethings discussing the changing nature of their friendship should amount to compelling listening, but in this instance it does. That’s partly because the lyrics are really well written: on Levitation, Walton seems to describe the duo’s bond as “something glittering inside the drain”; “we both held on so tight we’re bruising up,” Hollingworth suggests later. But it’s also because – unlike a lot of left-field acts who attempt a swerve into pop – Let’s Eat Grandma have the tunes to back it up. Even when they were describing their sound as “experimental sludge-pop” and singing songs called Eat Shiitake Mushrooms, the duo had a strong melodic facility, clearly audible amid the honking saxes and frantically strummed mandolins. It feels sharper than ever here. The album offers a smorgasbord of Top 40 choruses and beautiful melodies, which makes the words more impactful.
The album is ordered in a way that makes it sometimes feel like a conversation – a track by Walton addressing Hollingworth, then vice-versa. And there’s something really potent about hearing songs that tend to self-examination and a tone of hopeful resignation yet sound so jubilant overall – a variation on the old disco trick of setting downcast lyrics to euphoric music. At one point, Happy New Year literally explodes into fireworks, at odds with what’s being sung: “I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how I want the old us back.”
Out of such strife has come a succession of songs that are immediate, powerful and involving. You listen to Two Ribbons willing the pair to work things out, as if you’re watching a particularly magnetic drama. “You know you’ll always be my best friend,” sings Walton at one point, “and look at what I made with you.” At that moment, she sounds like someone beaming with pride, and rightly so: Two Ribbons is a fabulous album.
This week Alexis listened to
Ibibio Sound Machine: Protectionfrom Evil
The opening track of ISM’s most recent album still sounds fantastic a couple of months on: a party-starting burst of unsettling vocals and Chemical Brothers-y electronics.