ALBUM REVIEW – “Little Machines” by Lights

Watching an artist develop and evolve over time is one of the most exciting things a real music fan gets the privilege to do. It’s often all the more rewarding when the musician(s) never attain(s) the popularity you believe they deserve. Case in point is Canadian electropop singer-songwriter Lights, whose synthy bubblegum tunes have gathered a hoard of admirers without falling into the bright glare of the mainstream. The growth between innocuous, lovely-yet-naive debut The Listening and the more grounded and coherent follow-up Siberia was enormous, and the latter record truly revealed the talents of both the woman herself and the production team behind it. Underpinning her syrupy vocals with bass-driven grit and hard-hitting percussion was a truly winning formula, and that it’s for the most part been abandoned on Little Machines is at first something of a surprise.

What becomes apparent given time, however, is that a return to the playful blips and sugary textures of The Listening has been filtered through its successor’s more mature and measured outlook, resulting in something again wholly different. Even at its busiest, on the crunching strut of ‘Running With the Boys’ and arena-sized single ‘Up We Go’, the music has all the room to breathe it requires to avoid claustrophobia. For the most part though this is a collection of slow, deliberate tunes with immaculate production standards and an understated approach to drawing the listener in. At its finest, it’s nothing less than breathtaking: the pairing of ‘Muscle Memory’ and ‘Oil and Water’ is a perfect synthesis of lush soundscapes that draw on dreamy vocal washes as much as the computerised sounds, ebbing and flowing effortlessly.

Lights herself remains an underrated singer with a penchant for bringing out the best in the music behind her, as in the somewhat underwhelming ‘How We Do It’. Her range is used to full effect on the slowly building throb of opener ‘Portal’, a wordless chorus peaking in intensity as the electric blanket of sound reaches its zenith. Lyrically, Little Machines is similarly strong but not showy, the most interesting coming on reflective closer ‘Don’t Go Home Without Me’, a logical extension of Siberia’s ‘And Counting’. Also worth noting is the quality of bonus track ‘From All Sides’, a towering spaghetti-western-meets-dance-pop hybrid with a hook to shout at the skies. Quite why this obvious climax doesn’t bring the standard edition of the record to a close is a mystery.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Little Machines, it’s that the material feels one-paced even if the sonic textures used across it are varied. ‘Meteorites’ brings welcome energy to an otherwise slow second half, but the two songs that follow it can’t help but feel like an anti-climax once they return to the down-tempo previously established. Moreover, the club-dance structure of ‘Same Sea’ feels uncomfortable on first listen, and from that song onwards the tracks could likely have been arranged in a more effective order. Lack of the natural flow Siberia had in spades is the big thing holding its follow-up back from the same level of brilliance; other more minor niggles including unnecessary vocal quirks doing less damage.

The growth of Lights as an artist thus continues in earnest on Little Machines. While it’s less of a jump than its predecessor, and has problems with lack of variety that her music hasn’t suffered from in the past, it contains enough enjoyable material to merit the attention of both fans and the uninitiated. Classy pop is a valuable commodity in the modern climate, and the first track alone is enough to convince the connoisseur that here is an album worth their time, while ‘Muscle Memory’ might just be the inconspicuously perfect pop song of 2014. As a whole, the record is an imperfect but rewarding additional chapter to the Lights story.

Rating: 8 / 10

Michael Bird

‘Up We Go’




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