(In the ‘zine that accompanied Los Campesinos! second album there’s a quote emblazoned on white space: “Telling stories is telling lies”. They’re the words of B. S. Johnson, one of those forgotten English legends who’ll swim up on impressionable young men and guide their work from beyond the grave decades after death. I know the quote well because I lived it out for a long time, doggedly sticking to the principal before the power of metaphor won me over, dressed to kill in heels, lipstick and the kind of skirt you’ll never be able to afford. I think I only really acknowledged that sitting down to write this)
I offer instant credit to any band confident enough to start an album with the words “Let’s talk about you for a minute” before spending the rest of the album gripping tightly to “I”.
When this commitment to first person narrative works it’s gut wrenching. I must’ve listened to Romance Is Borings‘s ‘I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know’ a few dozen times to soak up the way Aleks Campesinos! pleads to become “the one that keeps track of the moles on your back”, conjuring the promised intimacy held in every relationship/crush/glimpse ever known. ‘In Media Res’ achieves it too, sketching the cramped confines of a late-night car with the accuracy of someone who dwelled on it while crossing the Atlantic (“I flew for seven hours. The sky didn’t once turn black”). But, just as acutely, when it’s less than moving the self-obsession is sickening. ‘Straight In At 101’ tilts around the metaphor of break-ups as best of television, but nose dives into graphically unfulfilled sexual desire in a way that conjures only coldness.
Where Los Campesinos! take the most flack is the diarism and juvenalia of their lyrics, but with Romance Is Boring such a remark totally misses the point. Their problem is that they communicate an emotional maturity and complexity that spends so much time trapped in the minutia of love and its converse it becomes draining. I clench my teeth time and again wishing I could hear a metaphor (like ‘We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed’s “I’ve got a fist on fire!”) that says more than the snarled epithets attributed to love and loss in this album.
At the Rough Trade instore album launch (and online, and in interviews and other times I’ve seen them live) Gareth Campesinos! reflected on the boredom induced by touring ‘old’ material, which is a repressing statement to make to an audience. It clips wings and enthusiasm so neatly I’ve started to assume it’s premeditated. Maybe the romance of it all got burned out of them in America?
Lyrically speaking, it’s clear this band has loved and lost on the road. Hammering between states must be an endless slog, all process and containment, scarring the Oklahoma into their collective memory alongside the Manhattan Skyline, Mexico and Missouri. 2008/9 saw Los Campesinos! entrenched in the U.S., rattling from city to city while recording the best part of two albums there. Their return to the UK seemed to be accompanied with the kind of nostalgia for this trip usually only achieved after years of distance. The album’s ‘Coda…’ vacuum packs that sensation, and I have sympathy for it, but the Los Campesinos! that went out there first time around could sing about “blood and cherryade” in a way that would make this version sick to the stomach.
In Image comic series Phonogram, the Dexys Midnight Runners obsessed Lloyd is nudged towards the music of Los Campesinos! to (essentially) stop him being so serious. I can’t help but imagine his frown lines return as he hits play on ‘Plan A’, bullied into embracing his old self by a band that stopped smiling.
I wonder how much bullying it will have taken to get the crowd into Rough Trade, briefly, before realising the answer is ‘not much’. Most of the room remember Britpop as Blur vs Oasis and danced to ‘Common People’ before going to sixth form. Gathered in London’s best known independent record store, beside the city’s best loved Sunday market, they make up the core demographic of Los Campesinos! audience; indie kids one and all. They will not judge the band on this performance alone…
(which is just as well, because it isn’t very good. The sound pops and jitters, instruments slamming up in volume before dropping altogether in a way that My Bloody Valentine spend thousands trying to emulate. Half of the band can only be seen by the front row and the room itself seems to resent the disruption. I like Rough Trade and I like live music, but their purposes aren’t well suited tonight)
(but that may not be entirely true, because there are flashes between feedback squeals of something pure. Tom Campesinos! is the axis around which the band spin, creating a tumbling electric orchestra of noise that thumps home. They make me think about the pace of the new material, songs that purr and run like an engine rather than a party. Once again the rhythm section act as a platform off of which the strings and guitars soar and live Harriet Campesinos!’s violin brings a tear to the eye; on record she brings them running down your cheek and onto the keyboard)
…and nor should they. While an audience on tour might be a better representation of who the band reaches, I’ll bet it’s not as all-encompassing as they want it to be. And there’s an untapped audience who really could stand to see this gang create beautiful things together.
In Brick Lane they close with ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think About The Future’, a track I’m unashamedly in love with. In part it’s an observational essay on the hopelessness of others, while also filling the imagined ocean with pregnant optimism: somewhere over the horizon there’s change. It casts me upon imagined shores, where chats with people I love and respect can give me the focus and strength I need to swim off. Straddling both sides of the Atlantic, Los Camp! are a band wholly conscious of the power of escape.
I know people whose lives are lived in a state of momentum – both internationally and within London – that I need to think twice about phoning in case I get an international dial tone or just slow them down. They are far from rock stars. This when every day I find myself surrounded by a ‘no future’ rhetoric of financial stagnation that chokes the half formed dreams of school-age Brits. At the same I’ve spent all day listening to an album by people who have barely graduated that’s all about interstates and momentum rather than England’s pylons and crumbling piers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that, also, everything is wrong with that, because if you acknowledge the escapism it takes to get there then you can change lives.
Romance Is Boring is locked in some holding pattern of truth, as if a little lie here and there might stop people dead, but sometimes truth is the last thing we need. I want to be afforded the luxury of imagining somewhere better on another shore. Gareth is an incredible songwriter, nailing observation and confession with an attention to detail that would floor most novelists, but he holds so tightly to heartbreak that he loses all sense of hope. He could light a fire under a country of teenagers who think they know what their future holds, could burn the memory of Bridgend clean off of South Wales… and it’s okay that he hasn’t yet. But maybe he should soon.