You may not be able to see the gorgeous landscapes behind Baby Grand, McLamb’s fourth record as The Love Language, but they’re so essential to the picture you’ll feel them in every note. Started and finished on either side of a move across country, the album was completed in California; fragmentary demos recorded in, of all places, a cavernous Virginia hammock factory came alive when splashed by sunshine. “It was something just about being in a new city, and a new light,” McLamb says, “and reopening the sessions, and this demo that I thought was a throwaway, suddenly I’m really feeling it…” You can hear the freedom kick in when the backwoods country shuffle of “Castle In The Sky” explodes into a full-on aughts anthem, equal parts outstretched arms and pumped fists.
Yet so much lies in the shadows behind these tracks: other states, other lives, other dreams, other relationships, fogged over perhaps but there nevertheless. Yes, Baby Grand has its share of breakup songs – nobody writes those better than Stu McLamb – but this time, even as something’s being mourned, something else is being worked through: not just lovers, but places and a time in life, have been left behind. Listen as the heartbreak and yearning of “New Amsterdam” come crashing down into the beautiful stasis of “Southern Doldrums” – the former song was inspired by Cyndi Lauper and Joy Division, McLamb claims, while the latter draws upon John Cale’s meditative solo records – or as the beautiful lift of the startling sequence of songs that make up Baby Grand’s propulsive midsection gives way to a moody instrumental called “Rain/Delay,” a collection of distant plinks and plonks struggling to assemble themselves into melody, like something off a John Fahey album. “I’ve embraced the idea that getting murky is what the band is,” says McLamb of the various assemblies of players and the various genre influences that have fueled The Love Language at different points in time. “I love bands like the Ramones, that have one thing that really works, and I love a good restaurant, that serves one really good dish. But I get bored… I want this album to showcase different types of pop songwriting and structures.” “Juiceboxx” is what you’d get if Mick Jagger crooned his “Emotional Rescue” falsetto over a backing track by the Style Council; “Let Your Hair Down” impressively suggests what “Caroline No” might have sounded like if only it had been written by George Michael.
But it’s the finale that sends Baby Grand into the stratosphere. With Raleigh in his rearview McLamb dusts off the sixties throwback sounds of The Love Language’s 2009 s/t debut – they’re all over the flat-out-perfect “Independence Day” – and somewhere around New Orleans he resuscitates those catchy melodies you can’t help singing along to from 2010’s Libraries – clock them on the lovely paean to a South American town he never managed to visit, “Paraty.” Maybe it’s Austin, or Phoenix, that finds him slipping into the sleek suit of the eighties synths that underlay 2013’s Ruby Red – “Shared Spaces” should be listened to on a boat, while wearing a skinny tie and shoes without socks – but then the wide-open vista of the California desert opens up before him, sunny and flat and full of promise, and that’s “Glassy.” It’s gotta be close to the best thing Stu has ever written, and it culminates this alternately-ruminative, alternately-riotous record on, fittingly, a note of reflection: “We’ll be riding out this losing streak,” he sings, “and they say the tides are rising/ it took a long time to get us where we can’t come back…” You can’t leave something behind without starting something new, and the inverse of that proposition is just as true: when you stand on the Pacific coast, squinting into the sunset, there’s an entire country at your back, unseen but ever-present, and it stays with you forever.