Breakups are a grieving process, and many of the most famous albums about the subject tend to emerge while that process is still underway. Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love are all definitive ruminations on unsuccessful relationships, bristling with raw feeling still being felt immediately. For her latest release (self-titled), English singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas traverses the same territory from a greater distance. Reflecting on a former love months — possibly years — down the line, the artist is blessed with a generous spirit and enlightened perspective. She is tuned in to the visceral immediacy and complexity of endings, but demonstrates her ability to navigate that terrain with immense self-awareness and intelligence.
Having put out two functionally appealing records in the past decade which suggested but never fully fulfilled a promise of significant neo-soul talent, La Havas now offers a starkly more assured and accomplished piece of work. The CD and digital versions of her third album begin at the end with an extended version of lead single “Bittersweet” (the shorter, already-released version serves as the album’s close). The singer’s voice drifts in on a sigh above a smoky instrumental before settling into a calm, steady groove. It’s a measured, purposeful piece of music. A dramatic, gospel-inflected chorus declares “bittersweet summer rain, I am born again / all my broken pieces.” It finds the artist emerging into the light after what can have only been a long, arduous undertaking, providing hope for the listener upfront while the track’s return at the album’s conclusion taps into the sense of triumph that comes from finding oneself in the wreckage of what was once shared with another.
From this, Lianne La Havas settles into its lightly-conceptual, phase-based groove. Light, playful funk number “Read My Mind” is swept up in the “sweet joy” of beginnings — as is the listener as this second track (or opener, if you have the vinyl version) lifts off into an airy jazz outro driven by piano and synthesiser. These early tracks are augmented with the light nostalgic haze of memory, as with the compression on the fingerpicked guitars of “Green Papaya” that evokes an old transistor radio or guest producer Mura Masa’s use of springy, looped riffs on “Can’t Fight.” These early offerings indulge in the earnestness and purity of burgeoning love, which gives the tracks a summery sheen. La Havas does not chastise herself for falling for a person (real, composite or conceptual), but instead allows herself to revisit those happy feelings and appreciate them fully — which she does in a lovely showcase of her various vocal talents, exuberantly alternating between acrobatic ad libs, rhythmic syncopations and soaring interludes.
Elegy sets in gently as the record progresses, seeping into the edges of the tracks on the album’s second “phase.” Muted offering “Paper Thin” uses a vulnerable vocal from La Havas to depict the nuances of discovering the less palatable aspects of a lover — “your pain is real, but you won’t let it heal,” she laments in one of a number of direct but insightful couplets on the track. A sunbaked, soulful reimagining of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” is placed at the album’s midpoint, handing the moment where the scales tip on a failing relationship over to someone else’s words. The cover is imbued with La Havas’ own sonic personality in the organ-led instrumentals and ghostly choral backing vocals, but the track’s inclusion is most prescient in its evocation of a feeling that a person often feels not themselves in the tumult of a breakup and looks elsewhere for guidance — lines like “everybody leaves if they get the chance” or the repeated closing lyrics “hit the bottom and escape” play like lines La Havas would have indeed told herself at the crisis point of this faltering romance.
Some of the album’s most tender moments occur in its second half, as on the husky, pleading chorus that gives “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” its title, or the sparse twin guitars that spiral around La Havas’ voice on “Courage” as she finds herself “overcome by the memories.” There’s texture at this low ebb too, though, as on the infectious Mediterranean rhythms of “Seven Times” which are carried on a buoyant Spanish guitar. This track more than any other goes deep on the details of that post-breakup healing process, especially its frustration and repetition — “all night, all day / I cry and pray.” La Havas is able to tap into those delicate feelings with an authenticity and clarity that comes with time, but it doesn’t make the pure feelings her words evoke any less impactful.
After being lost in someone else, the key final step to moving forward is certainly the rediscovery of oneself. La Havas’ exploration of this particular stage gives the album its most satisfying offering on penultimate track “Sour Flower.” which sees gradual layers of instrumentation building over shimmering acoustic guitars and keyboards like the bricks and mortar of the singer’s own personhood being built up again. Direct references to the South Londoner’s origins — “must’ve flown 1,000 miles to get back to Brixton” — underpin a return to the self as the song’s loud/quiet dynamism suggests clouds parting to allow for a reemergence. The track wends its way to the close with a dreamlike extended jam that truly feels like freedom. To transition from this liberating revelry to the repeated closer “Bittersweet” allows the listener to appreciate the wisdom of La Havas’ approach to the subject.
In the end, this is an album not bogged down in specifics, yet it is bristling with fine details that tap into the universal experience of heartbreak. It’s a reassuring message that, even as we try and fail to make love work again and again, a person will always find their way back to themselves in the aftermath. It’s especially reassuring, too, that there are songwriters and musicians as astute and deftly talented as Lianne La Havas working today to give us the tools we need to do so.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.