The voice is the greatest musical instrument. It is the single most expressive tool that a musician has and Lianne La Havas flexes the dexterity of that muscle on her exquisite eponymous third album. Lianne La Havas traces a deeply personal story of falling in love, seemingly inevitable heartbreak, self-liberation, and the general disintegration of a relationship and its romance. The supple record is tied together by Lianne’s powerful voice. Her soulful timbre and distinctive vibrato are the two defining characteristics of her expressive voice. At once, she is defiant and sharp against the harsh realities of a crumbling love and weary and broken in the face of the truth. It’s no secret that 2020 has been a beautiful year for R&B, but Lianne brings something new to the table with this album. Her emphasis on analog and live instrumentation, primarily guitar and drums, sets her apart from the trap&b and “vibes” wave that have largely dominated the genre.
The album’s lead single, “Bittersweet,” is one of the single most effective vocal performances of the year. The rousing track opens and closes the album with a careful balance of sound levels. Lianne will leave pockets of silence hanging in the air before delivering powerful belts that are accented by falsetto harmonies. “Bittersweet” instantly introduces the bass guitar, the album’s most important instrument bar Lianne’s voice, and the rock and soul influences that dominate much of the album’s sonic palette. While the album’s soulfulness is evident throughout the album, it is perhaps best expressed in “Green Papaya” and “Read My Mind.” The former is easily Lianne’s most sensual song to date and it would fit nicely in a playlist next to tracks from Jhené Aiko, Kehlani, and Summer Walker. The title takes its name from a well-known aphrodisiac, a smart decision since the song is a sultry ode to making love. The latter parlays soul into a bass-anchored funk track that perfectly captures the fluttery feeling of falling in love. Both tracks see Lianne using a more playful tone; they are fleeting moments of unadulterated happiness on a tracklist that quickly devolves into the deterioration of love.
The emotional heft of Lianne La Havas lies in this trifecta of tracks: “Paper Thin,” “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” and “Seven Times.” Explicitly focused on the lyrics, “Paper Thin” is colored by just a guitar and some drums. It’s Lianne’s quivering vocal performance, however, that truly gets across the point of anxiety and insecurity that she has written about. When she sings “there must be another key,” she is quite literally pleading for a chance to save this love before it eventually goes south. The slight rasp to her voice evokes the weariness that comes with fighting for a relationship. “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” is a plea for vulnerability. She is simultaneously finding the strength within herself to be vulnerable and urging her partner to do the same. Some of that strength comes from the thick layered instrumentation: bass guitar, snare drum, programmed drums, electric guitar, and more. Again, Lianne’s understanding of silence and loudness comes into play with that haunting vocal arrangement in the bridge. “Seven Times,” which takes inspiration from Psalms 119 for its title, is less of a plea and more of a prayer. Lianne prays for forgiveness, closure, grace, and help for her partner to overcome their own issues. They can’t move forward until they both heal themselves. In addition, the flute that comes in on the last minute of the song is sublime. Just as she sings, it’s all about getting the timing right; “you’ve gotta hold your heart but I don’t think you’re ready.”
Throughout this album, Lianne employs repetition as a tool for manifestation in a way similar to Solange on When I Get Home. Even as she traces the path of this broken relationship, she is still manifesting her peace and wholeness every step of the way. Her lyricism is revelatory and painful, and their impact is only exacerbated by her voice — even the songs that aren’t written by her get a boost. In that vein, Lianne covered “Weird Fishes” by Radiohead for this album, and it is undoubtedly one of the strongest Radiohead covers of all time. The song is anchored by heavy drums throughout the track’s length except for the intentionally empty third verse that is held together by an eerie vocal arrangement. Lyrically, the song fits into the general narrative of the album. When Lianne sings “why should I stay here?/why should I stay,” you can’t help but reevaluate where you direct your energy in your own life. It is the seven-minute epic of a penultimate track (“Sour Flower”), however, that really digs into the essence of Lianne’s person. Rooted in family history through spoken lessons from her grandmother, “Sour Flower” is a grandiose anthem of liberation from the sorrow of the end of the relationship and the entrapment of those memories. The percussion section (snare drum, conga, bongos, and more) that closes out the song is easily one of the most enjoyable parts of the record.
Lianne La Havas is an exemplary album. The record is acutely focused on telling a specific narrative through expressive vocal performances and effortless lyrics. If there’s one album you pay full attention to this year, let it be this one.
Key Tracks: “Bittersweet” | “Green Papaya” | “Please Don’t Make Me Cry” | “Paper Thin”