Review Summary: There’s a place far away that’s better/You said, “I want us to go there”/She said, “I’ll go as long as we stay together”/
“‘Cause you’re the only one”
When categorizing Little Dragon’s music, you have to consider each individual release as its own genre entity. Their self-titled debut album was jazz-pop through-and-through, with only a few tracks like standout single “Twice” breaking from that formula. On their subsequent releases, they’ve veered towards more straightforward pop and electronic experimentation. And while the jazz cadences of their early releases have waned throughout their entire discography, 2011’s “Ritual Union” showed the band at its worst, unable to reconcile their new influences with their previous inclinations. Fortunately for them, “Nabuma Rubberband” shows that the band still has a few tricks up its sleeve, and proves to be one of the year’s most captivating releases.
On “Nabuma Rubberband,” the band largely eschews the jazz and/or full-on electronic leanings of their previous albums in favor of an approach that closely mirrors the stylings of ‘80s R&B, particularly the works of Janet Jackson, who lead singer Yukimi Nagano has stated in interviews influenced the album. The influence really shows up on tracks like ‘Cat Rider’ and ‘Paris’, both highlights, where Nagano belts out heart-rending tales of lost love over some of the best instrumentals the band has cooked up. The best of these two, ‘Paris’, is the album’s best track, and for good reason. The synth lead and drum beat are deliciously melancholy and constantly shifting, giving Yukimi’s longing vocals a palpable sense of weight. The lyrics are simple and effective here as a rendezvous with a lost lover is planned and ultimately scrapped as Yukimi sings, “I've got a full drawer of letters/Remember it was Paris you said we were gonna meet/Why your answering machine still on"/It's the oddest feeling since you're gone.” The lyrics are deceptively spry as the protagonist mourns a dead lover. Lead single “Klapp Klapp” is by far the album’s most danceable and singleworthy track, with synthesized handclaps and gorgeous organic instrumentation. However, the lyrics evoke a slight feeling of unease as their dark subject matter is juxtaposed with the near-weightless instrumental, a point exemplified by the song’s chorus of “falling apart.” There are other moments like this on the album, such as on the song “Only One” which, despite its collapse into full-on 4-on-the-floor dance music, is essentially about a woman falling into a long bout of alcoholism following the death of a lover and leaping from a rooftop into “a place far away that's better” where she again meets her lover (for those of you who don’t like the poetic nature of the lyrics or don’t understand, she died).
And it’s this feeling that permeates throughout “Nabuma Rubberband.” Songs like “Killing Me” and “Klapp Klapp” carry sprightly R&B-tinged pop melodies, but are ultimately given depth and weight by Yukimi’s beautiful vocals and poignant yet melancholy songwriting. And really, these are the elements that best define Little Dragon as band. Their biggest triumphs (read: ‘Little Dragon’ the album) came from juxtaposing bright instrumentals with remarkably conscious lyrics that address love, loss and live in ways that only fully realized adults could. Yukimi Nagano has proven time and again that she is both a remarkable singer and lyricist, but “Rubberband” is the first time since the band’s debut where the instrumentals are truly worthy of her piercing and idiosyncratic lyrics. “Nabuma Rubberband,” in that regard, proves a remarkable return to form in a way that only Little Dragon could pull off. They’ve essentially returned to their roots by lighting out into new territory.