Los Campesinos!—how long are they going to hold onto that exclamation point? Back when they got their start with 2007’s exuberant Sticking Fingers Into Sockets, it was the only punctuation that made sense. But here we are in 2011, and the matured overtones of the Welsh septet’s fourth proper full-length, Hello Sadness, might be better served with a number of punctuation marks. Let’s examine further.
The ampersand represents the group’s overarching theme of community. Since their rapid ascent to popularity, they’ve served as the band made by fans, for fans. Though, on Hello Sadness it instead serves to denote yet another round of new members: Jason Campesinos! on drums, Kim Campesinos! on keyboards, and permanent-member status for utility-man Rob “Sparky Deathcap” Campesinos! (their continued insistence on sharing surnames only lends more credence to this modification in punctuation).
Ellipses would normally be reserved for Gareth’s penchant for suggestive, tongue-in-cheek irony that lets you, the listener, call the punchlines; but on Hello Sadness it mainly comes to signify a larger, more general theme of shortcomings. Even the record itself is tangibly short. The last time they released an album with just 10 songs (2008’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed), they insisted on calling it an Extended EP.
But don’t jump to conclusions of apathy just yet, because Hello Sadness is their most painstakingly charted album to date. They labored over a cohesive story arch and uniform texture; but from the very start they already sound resigned to the story’s fate (spoiler alert: divorce). They give us the harrowing defeat without any of the detailed exposition that would give us reason to care.
As a result, Hello Sadness is not ambitious in the ways We Are Beautiful or even last year’s Romance is Boring were. There are fleeting moments littered throughout where the band recaptures the gentle edges that worked best on Romance Is Boring, but none manage to inject the urgency or insight that once made those songs stand out.
“By Your Hand” and “Songs About Your Girlfriend” are the album’s clear breadwinners, offering mobile verses that transition smoothly into the album’s catchiest choruses. But the other eight tracks play off riffs that struggle to get moving—while some simply come up lame when Gareth lets out groaners like “You can lead a horse to water, but it won’t drown itself” on “Every Defeat A Divorce (Three Lions).” Their one big swing at a cathartic ballad, “To Tundra,” does well to create a swelling presence of texture, yet still operates without any real hook to assert itself in your memory. It’s the most powerful and poignant moment of the couple’s story, but merely a dutiful and forgettable placeholder in the album’s runtime. Pop songs like these are a dime a dozen, and there aren’t even that many for us to pick through here.
The whole affair is an exercise in uninspired defeatism. They appear to be trying harder than ever, yet they’re reluctant to cut loose on their convictions like we’ve come to expect. We know there’s more to the band, but we just wait and wait and wait…
As in, What the heck happened to Los Campesinos? Because those giddy school kids we all fell for on Sticking Fingers Into Sockets are a far cry from the melodramatic saps we’re presented with on Hello Sadness. Each song spins around the same old tropes of loneliness, sexual frustration, and unavoidable entropy, but this time they lack their hyper and clever personality. All of a sudden, Los Campesinos! sound afraid of failure.
Perhaps this transformation is best envisioned through a quote from their breakout hit, 2007’s “You! Me! Dancing!” (truly the high-water mark for exclamation points in titles): “And we’re just like how Rousseau depicts Man in the State of Nature: We’re undeveloped, we’re ignorant, we’re stupid, but we’re happy.” If Hello Sadness makes one thing abundantly clear, it’s that they no longer view themselves as ignorant, stupid, or happy.
Instead, Hello Sadness offers the lumbering and deflated version of Los Campesinos!, hiding away their most alluring energy in favor of glum inactivity. Compare how vomit on “Miserabilia” two years ago was a symbol for the requisite ills of outright nostalgia, but now “By Your Hand” treats it as a major faux pas and potential deal-breaker. One man’s enlightenment is another’s selling out.
So thanks, Los Campesinos, but we were hoping you would’ve continued to show the kind of insightful and inspired energy that warranted an exclamation point. Period.