Because COVID hit in March, Lianne La Havas’s self-titled album sounds like a spring that never came. The English singer released the album in July, only her second studio effort in the last five years. La Havas peaked at 21 on the Billboard charts, but only stayed a week—and it’s the best music of the summer you haven’t heard yet.
The genre is neo-soul. La Havas cites Joni Mitchell, Al Green, and Destiny’s Child as major inspirations. The album chronicles the stages of a relationship, from getting together to breaking up. Recorded in the fall of 2019, the album might at first blush sound like the product of a more innocent, less relevant time. Global pandemics and national uprisings aren’t exactly romantic muses. But, according to La Havas, the album’s love story is meant also to reflect the life cycle of nature. Hers is the sound of hope and quiet resilience in the face of pain and heartbreak. With her at once sweet and powerful voice, La Havas weaves together solitude and desire in a way that takes on contemplative resonance in the time of quarantine. It’s a cosmic lullaby for a world in anguish. She sings us the love story we forgot we were in.
“Bittersweet” is the lead-off single; true to cyclical form, the album starts and ends with it (the first track is full-length, the last isn’t). The opening kick drum hits, overlaid by reverbed piano tinkling, wobble slow enough that the wheels might fall off. If we’re going to hop on board with La Havas, we need to take it down a notch. Soul is in full effect once the guitar, bass, and keyboard join in, La Havas crooning sweetly over wistful rises. The payoff is in the chorus. The kick drum returns and heartbeats us into this feeling-fertile hollow, where La Havas is standing, under bittersweet summer rain/I’m born again. Maybe it’s a song about falling in love, maybe it’s a song about falling in, period. The yes to life that’s been required of us this summer—at home alone, at work (alone?), on the streets—is a kind of diving purposefully into life, a kind of love. In recent months, its bitterness has been obvious; La Havas reminds us of the sweetness. We only brace ourselves for heartbreak when we know we are in love.
La Havas loves deep enough that God gets involved. On “Paper Thin,” La Havas consoles her lover: God only knows the pain you’re in/But the future’s bright/You’ve got God on your side, he’s listening. A verse from “Read My Mind” is worth quoting in full:
Oh, no, you’re everywhere that I go
In my head again, oh, stuck in my head again
A full force, nature taking her course
No need for hide-and-seek I’ll let you find me
Loving like personified
I’m so into him, oh, I hope God is listening
These lovers are star-crossed, but they’re not alone in the universe. La Havas has already clued us in that her story starts like summer rain; it’s part of a natural cycle much larger than herself. So of course God is here, lurking benevolently around the edges. Like all great love stories, feeling and desire transcend the individual and, in the most rapturous moments, enamor us of what Thomas Merton called “Absolute Person.” Or, in La Havas’s terms, loving, like, personified.
Also like all good love stories, there are the erotic bits, too. To a celibate, “Green Papaya” might just as well be about a fruit stand. La Havas does soul right in balladizing love in all its forms. While the sexier stuff may not be in the Jesuit wheelhouse, there’s undeniable power there for every kind of lover. When La Havas invites her partner, Take me home, she’s articulating a desire that passionately includes this one person, but extends beyond them, too. The journey home is one she’s making throughout the album. When the romance has finally run its course and she’s picked up the pieces on “Courage,” La Havas sings, If you ever need me, I’ll be home, home/If you ever need me, I’ll be home. “Green Papaya” is a moment of sensual beauty on a much longer road to consummation.
Why now? Why a neo-soul album now? The easy answer is that we could all use a distraction. A deeper answer is that we need reminding, now more than ever, of what it’s all about: love. And love in a way that feels integrated with a larger force and a larger will than the all-too-painful paroxysms of the present moment. La Havas’s album is a conceptual victory on that score, but an aesthetic one, too. Her story is richly told over funky instrumentation, with a voice that can soar to smash windows or whisper with tenderness. In a summer of survival, La Havas released a piece of art that reminds us that beauty, and the passionate love of it, makes life worth living.
This article was updated Thu, 17 Sep 2020 07:46:51