For a while now, Lianne La Havas has been just shy of a truly great album. The London-based artist’s past two releases, 2012’s Is Your Love Big Enough? and 2015’s Blood, showcased her exceptional vocal abilities but fell prey to commercial tendencies. Her skills as an agile guitarist and capable songwriter were largely overshadowed by overpolished production and an upbeat radio-friendliness that felt cheap and forced. A Mercury Prize nominee and a mentee of the late great Prince, La Havas’ career has often been overlooked, her music promising but not individual enough to gain her worldwide recognition as a generational talent.
Her newest album, however, aptly titled Lianne La Havas, is a unified statement that finds her taking full creative control. Largely self-produced, along with some of her frequent collaborators, the record takes bold creative leaps toward establishing her own sound, vividly blending elements of pop, neo-soul and R&B genres, while displaying a strong sense of individuality. Lianne La Havas is a dynamic mix of first-class grooves and songwriting that is intimate and accessible, radiating authenticity and warmth while cementing its place far and away as La Havas’ best album to date.
Lianne La Havas is full of transformation, managing to sound immediate and personal, often feeling more like a live album than a studio recording. Opening track “Bittersweet” is grandiose and powerful in classic Lianne La Havas fashion, her vocals commanding in the chorus as she belts, “Bittersweet summer rain/ I’m born again,” surrounded by a pounding beat and crisp piano keys. The song kicks the album off with a bang, signaling the coming sea change. The record is filled with uncut snippets of dialogue from the recording process, making listeners feel as if they’re witnessing studio magic. On the flamenco-tinged “Seven Times,” you can hear La Havas’ satisfaction with the song’s swaggered energy; just before the song’s verses begin, she adds, “Yeah, that’s a good intro.”
Songs across the album buzz with energy that is looser than any of La Havas’ previous work, with the engaging arrangements and production empowering her voice rather than suffocating it. “Can’t Fight” features production from Mura Masa. The track sways with bristling guitars and gripping percussion sitting just below La Havas’ commanding vocals and heavenly harmonies. Like the song’s subject matter, its groove is irresistible. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” co-written by Nick Hakim and Aqualung, is arresting R&B with haunting backing vocals that fill the track with guilt and sadness.
At the center of the album is La Havas’ cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes.” Though she’s been performing the track live for years, her rendition finds a welcome place here, springing to life out of the budding anticipation of “Out of Your Mind (Interlude)” with the instantly recognizable rhythmic jolt of the song’s drums. Immediately however, La Havas’ version takes a turn; rather than trying to replicate the scrambling energy of the original, the song sinks into a slower groove that blossoms across its nearly six-minute runtime. Despite the aesthetic changes, the heart of “Weird Fishes” remains, as La Havas beautifully renders the same hopes, fears and uncertainties of romantic desire.
Just as “Weird Fishes” was the apex of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, La Havas finds her own shining moment of brilliance with the sprawling “Sour Flower,” with its sparse plucked guitars melding together with glistening keys and constantly shifting rhythmic variations as her towering vocals break free across the mix. In the song’s second verse, La Havas sounds fully self-assured as she declares, “I’m done settling for so much less than I knew I deserved.” The song is unpredictable and exciting as it crescendos, courageous but full of playful energy, refusing to be swept up in the overdramatic. It’s fast and loose perfection — the mark of an artist fully in her element.
Finally free of outside influence, Lianne La Havas’ new album shines as an affirmation of individuality and self-worth, impossible to pigeonhole and effortless to love. From the opening seconds of the album to the very last notes, you can sense just how satisfying this newfound confidence sounds. An outstanding testament to creative purpose, Lianne La Havas is lush, vibrant and entirely her own.
Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].