A sublime mastery of analogue synths and intelligent pop songwriting.
My favourite record label is Warp Records, purely on the strength of their 90s roster, including the likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Broadcast. That said, I’ve long harboured the suspicion that they’ve struggled to live up to that heyday. They haven’t fallen into the trap of complacency, instead rising above petty notions of genre and constantly signing new brilliant artists like Battles and Oneohtrix Point Never, but at the same time very little has achieved the same iconic status of those early game-changing albums like LFO’s Frequencies or the Artificial Intelligence compilations. This might just be ignorance on my part, though, as their latest release, Former Things by LoneLady (the alias of Julie Campbell) is, quite simply, a superb work.
One of the things I love about Former Things is that it wastes no time getting going – from the moment you press play, an exquisite drumbeat begins, taking you into one great song, ‘The Catcher’, with its stunning musicianship and key changes. Then there’s another great song. Then another. Then another. And so on. The opening trio of songs is as perfect as this kind of music can be, and the rest of the album, while perhaps not living up to that high thanks to listener fatigue, isn’t too bad either.
Former Things beguiles the listener by being, on the one hand, musically bright and sunny, with its pop hooks, guitars, synths and glockenspiels, but on the other hand lyrically bleak, with all the songs connected by a pining for the boundless dreams of childhood innocence, shattered by the inevitable journey into a more confusing adult world. The best example of this sharp contrast is the excellent ‘(There Is) No Logic’, where the sort of cheery hooks you’d expect to hear on a Chic or Taylor Swift record are not only realised with abstract synth work, but put next to Campbell’s vocals sarcastically bemoaning how “All your days will turn to rust” and “you better pick the right path”. I love how the song could be played on the radio and you can either simply hear it and appreciate its “infectious energy”, or you can listen more closely and pick up on a more sinister, existentialist undertone that runs throughout the whole album in spite of its superficial optimism. (There’s even a song called ‘Threats’, inspired by Threads, that happy, jolly film about nuclear destruction from the 1980s. And yes, it sounds like The Human League, because of course it does!)
The production and blend of guitars, synths and drum machines is incredibly well done, and clearly a labour of love – one made all the more moving when you see her recent participation in a Tim Burgess listening party, and you realise just how much work went into the album over several years, especially against a backdrop of personal issues, both financial and health-related. Oh, and the COVID lockdown. That played its part as well.
After years of unenviable adversity and hard work on Campbell’s part, the album is finally out. And for those of us who understand the power and value of pop music, but desire something more intelligent and stimulating than what the mainstream provides, this is a moment of rejoicing. I’m not one for ‘album-of-the-year’ rankings, being too out of sync with modern music, but don’t be surprised when this appears on everybody’s list.
Former Things is out now via Warp Records. Watch the video for ‘(There Is) No Logic’ below: