The English songwriter Lianne La Havas has always been an outlier, working a decidedly personal amalgam of rock, pop and R&B. Her music revolves around the lithe interplay of her syncopated guitar patterns and her freewheeling voice, which leaps and curls and wriggles with an insouciant vibrato. Her guitar parts echo and rival the ambiguous, unresolved chords and supple rhythmic games of Joni Mitchell and Radiohead, while her voice moves from low, sultry insinuations to open-throated declarations.
At a time when so much pop speaks of constriction — with narrow singsong melodies, metronomic beats and desiccated instrumental tones — La Havas is determinedly expansive, and anything but mechanical. She makes her trickiest musical stratagems sound effortless, even playful.
Her third album, “Lianne La Havas,” traces the course of a romance, from blissful beginnings to a bruised ending. Its sequencing suggests that the experience is cyclical; the album both starts and ends with the breakup. The opener, “Bittersweet,” uses a plush, pinging Isaac Hayes sample to ground the song in vintage R&B seduction. But that’s deceptive; the song announces a separation with sorrow and relief. “Bittersweet summer rain/I’m born again,” La Havas sings, twice in each chorus. The first time is low and disconsolate, continuing with the words “all my broken pieces”; the second is higher, a cry of pain turning to wordless release before she exults, “No more hanging around.”
The rest of the album plays as a flashback of the affair: a dizzying initial obsession that gives way to doubts, tears and estrangement. Desire and flirtation fill “Read My Mind,” with La Havas singing airily about “the pure joy when a girl meets a boy/natural chemistry,” while the backup vocals tease, “What you waiting for?” Next, in “Green Papaya,” she finds herself in unknown emotional territory, but more than willing to venture further. “Take me home/Let’s make real love,” she coos. “Take me out of the blue.”
But second thoughts soon arise. She tries, at first, to push them away in “Can’t Fight,” with restless rhythm-guitar chords and multiple vocal lines detailing her conflicted impulses, and “Paper Thin,” a stark ballad that offers mournful compassion: “I know your pain is real, but you won’t let it heal.” She channels desperation into plush, slow-motion R&B in “Please Don’t Make Me Cry,” and lets it erupt in a volatile version of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” — diffident at first, then explosive.
La Havas doesn’t give herself an easy narrative of romantic right and wrong. There’s no clear rupture and barely a flicker of anger as she makes her reluctant separation, only a growing realization that it’s impossible to hold on. In “Courage,” which suggests bossa nova in both its melodic turns and its sense of longing, she is “Lost and overcome by the memory/Of everything we were but will never be.” At the end of the album, in “Sour Flower,” the singer is alone but free: “No more looking out for someone else/but me,” she vows; the meter is an unconventional 5/4, subtly setting aside expectations.
The songs illuminate passion, impulsiveness, ambivalence and uncertainty, yet the structures La Havas created are lucid and poised. While matters of the heart may be out of control, her fingers and voice are impeccable.
Lianne La Havas
“Lianne La Havas”