There are certain bands who know just how to set up an album: with the very first line. Los Campesinos! have always been one of them. Perhaps the best of them was the first line of their sophomore album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed: “I think it’s fair to say that I chose hopelessness, and inflicted it on the rest of us / But at least I’ve come to terms with my own mortality.” As far as first lines go, that’s one of the best, and Gareth Campesinos! has always been a master at this art. Hello Sadness is no exception to this rule. “By your hand is the only end I foresee,” he sings at the very beginning of “By Your Hand.” This could be a tragically romantic line (this is Los Campesinos! after all), or it could be a cruelly understated double-entendre (this is Los Campesinos! after all). Whatever the case, “By Your Hand” is a showcase of what Gareth has perfected in the last four years: wry, self-deprecating storytelling, in the most catchy way possible. I’ve been a fan of Los Campesinos! since around when they started, and with every album, I’ve found myself more and more mesmerized with how expertly Gareth manages to grow a song out of misery.
For what it’s worth, he may be the closest thing my generation has to Morrissey. He has a vocal and lyrical style all his own, and though every musician around him is extremely competent and manages to construct songs around their maudlin frontman, he will always be the show-stealer for the Welsh seven-piece. Whenever I sit down to write about any Los Campesinos! record, this one included, I find myself almost unable to even bother trying to talk about everyone else in the band. Don’t take this as an insult to the band: as said, they are the perfect counterpoint to the lyrical tone of each song and record. But they aren’t nearly as juicy as their frontman happens to be.
So, I’ll get them out of the way first: just like the last three records, Hello Sadness does its part flawlessly to capture the mood of every song therein. The tone of the record is what you would expect from its title; there is still a slight pop sheen to the proceedings, but it feels more muted than it ever has been. “By Your Hand” and, to a lesser degree “Song About Your Girlfriend” (possibly the very first Los Campesinos! song I have ever disliked) feel to be the only songs on the record that retain any of the twee warmth that has been sewn into the lining of each and every record. But beyond those two songs, winter sets in. The record feels almost autumnal in tone, where even though the songs get stuck in your head, they leave you with a slight feeling of frost. It’s a sign of that awful M-word that we all feel compelled to use when writing about albums like this, but to call Los Campesinos! mature is to say that they are no longer Los Campesinos!. Four years on, the band is getting older, and it’s natural for them to grow up as musicians as well as people, but one of the trademarks of the band is that they are woefully youthful in their construction, even when they play songs like “The Sea is a Good Place to Think About the Future” (the undeniable show-stopper of Romance is Boring, and perhaps their catalog at large). Despite personnel changes (the band has lost and gained three members since 2008), they have remained tight as a unit, and it’s why they have yet to truly stumble.
Now, back to the forefront. “It’s only hope that springs eternal,” Gareth sings on the album’s title track, “and that’s the reason why / this dripping from my broken heart is never running dry.” It’s a line that is as morose at it is juvenile, and yet it’s a line delivered like that of Cursive’s Tim Kasher: it’s battered, and it’s bruised, but it’s hopeful. That seems to be the theme for the song (and the album as a whole), and it’s never played over-the-top, which is something that could have been done incredibly easily. He sings the above line several times during the song, and every time he sings it, it becomes slightly more frantic, but almost slightly more optimistic.
“Optimism” is merely a minor theme on the record, though. “I don’t really know now what I thought I knew then / You can lead a horse to water, but it won’t drown itself,” he sings in “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions),” and though the line is not especially meaningful on its own, it is incredibly telling as an austere non sequitur. The latter half of the record progresses in this fashion, where the tone and sound of the record, while getting even prettier by the minute, goes polar: you can almost hear the crippling sadness in “Hate for the Island”‘s call-and-response echoes on the topic of absent friends. By the end of the record, on “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. II,” you begin to almost feel for someone who’s career as a peddler of misery has taken its toll on the psyche of the chief storyteller: “I enter the abattoir to see my insides hanging there / But they request that I leave ’cause my sad eyes are too much to bear.” As far as darkly funny lines go, this is one of the best so far, up there with “You are an angel, that’s why you pray / And I am an ass, and that’s why I bray,” on “Baby, I Got The Death Rattle.” If he were to release an album of songs composed of lines that effortless, it would sell millions of copies.
“We take on the burden of all these sad-eyed children,” he sings near the frantic end of “To Tundra,” and it’s possible that that’s the curse of Los Campesinos!. They get ever so slightly more and more famous with every release (the key word here is “slightly,” remember), and I remember being 17 when their first record, Hold On Now, Youngster came out and being one of those sad-eyed children. It’s possible that Gareth, and the band as a whole, have begun to take on the weight of something bigger than themselves, and it shows in albums like Hello Sadness. They are a band that makes a better record than the last every time they record, and eventually, that’s going to catch up with them, and it’s possible that they know that. The miserabilia has made for some of the most engaging heart-on-sleeve writing since Death Cab for Cutie released We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes, and Tim Kasher made The Ugly Organ, so it’s hard to truly feel bad for them. I just hope it doesn’t destroy them.