In 2007, Little Dragon released their jazzy, soul-drenched, self-titled debut. At the end of the record’s introductory piano piece, “Twice”, lead vocalist Yukimi Nagano sighs, “One mirror holding us dearer now.” The record continues with lyrical imagery encompassing curiosity, surprise, love, and some weather-specific emotions. Seven years later, on the quartet’s Nabuma Rubberband, Nagano, in her now iconic, smooth soul voice, oozes out in reverberation, “You’re gonna make me put my fist through this mirror” on opener “Mirror”. She’s not readying a “smash,” but rather a generalized, unconcerned “put.”
This unconcern runs through the rest of the album, if not directly in Erik Bodin (drums), Fredrik Källgren Wallin (bass), Håkan Wirenstrand (keyboards), and Arild Werling’s (keyboards) sounds, then in Nagano’s lyrics and the melancholic tone she manifests. The album feels like a recalling of the group’s slower debut, but manages to maintain some of the trip-synthpop and dance sounds of their sophomore and junior albums on a handful of tracks. The blending of previous efforts and Nagano’s lyrical pensiveness hint at the desire to neither shy away from love in favor of atmosphere nor create an entirely danceable record.
After three records and a good deal of touring success, it only makes sense that the group feels more comfortable than ever in making a record so fluent and honest to impulse. It definitely shows, too, with each track featuring a similar lyrical focus, whether it’s in the anger-turned-apathy of “Mirror” or the falling “apart” or falling “on the floor with my broken butterfly wing” on lead dance single “Klapp Klapp”. The single’s music video, moreover, exists in a world of impulsivity, featuring religious dance-prayer-sacrifice and a demonic resurrection carried out by a woman who smirks both at the viewer and as a reaction when carried away following the resurrection’s completion. It’s left unclear whether this woman is entirely insane or alluding to some religious importance, the latter of which feels relatively unconnected to Little Dragon and their intentions. However, the video’s intense atmosphere and its protagonist’s smile place “Klapp Klapp” not just in an emotional context (via its lyrics), but in a psychological one as well.
Little Dragon have only explored this psychology on previous albums via the trancelike quality of its textures and earnest electronic experimentation. Now, Little Dragon have matured by enhancing the meaning behind sounds and voice; on Nabuma, the intense electronic experimentation is replaced by a stronger focus on Nagano, equipped with a heightened emotionality and moroseness. On “Paris”, Nagano sings about feeling alone despite a connection to someone who’s apparently left her behind; she asks, “Remember it was Paris you said we were gonna meet?/ Why’s your answering machine still on?” The apparent sadness in “Paris” and throughout the rest of the record is injected into the band’s new inventive attitude to create at atmosphere almost exactly as it’s depicted on Nabuma‘s album artwork.
As Nagano related, “When you put some of Janet [Jackson]’s really slow stuff on, you feel like you’re floating,” as depicted by the small child hovering in air above a cityscape. The same girl also floats, this time with fans in hand, for the cover of the “Paris” single. This new atmospheric quality feels necessary to both the emotional context and literal notions of weather in Nagano’s lyrics; this is evident alone on the title of “Pink Cloud”, but also throughout with imagery suitable to the synths and trance sounds that encompass Little Dragon’s electronic compositions. This is most apparent on “Only One”, a track that builds up with the deathly “Pitch black/ Before they ask you for your last words” to a fantastically Disclosure-esque conclusion.
Third single and album closer “Let Go” features a poeticism relatively unseen in most of the other tracks. Nagano contrasts “Do you feel so immortal?” with “So real?” among imagery of doleful weather (“Pushing under the rain/ Feeling thunder and pain”) tinged with love story (“Sweet nights with you”) and other syntactically interesting lines (“We’re spoiled and break on here/ On here” and “Daylight spring ’em up along”). Moreover, the band’s ability to combine calm, more monotonous moments (closely related to the previous tracks’ intense atmosphere) with deep, iconically Little Dragon dance moments under Nagano’s choruses is truly impressive, but also leaves the album feeling slightly incomplete.
There’s also the fact that this is the first Little Dragon album not self-produced, which makes it unclear how much atmospheric credit should go directly to the band itself. Regardless, Nabuma Rubberband is Little Dragon’s selfish record, and splendidly so. Some of the sweet moments in its strongest tracks, however, are lost in others, as is the nature of an album with standout tracks. Even yet, Little Dragon ended Nabuma on a note of tastefulness that shows their confidence has been a positive development.
Essential Tracks: “Klapp Klapp”, “Only One”, and “Let Go”