Artist: Lightspeed Champion
Label: Domino Records
For long-time listeners of Lightspeed Champion, the artist may not necessarily be recognizable when you first hear Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You. Refined, focused and precise, Dev Hynes abandons his more raw, damaged persona for a new direction entirely on his latest release. Not only does he nearly eliminate his former penchant for rampant profanity, but any less-than-pristine arrangements from his previous efforts seem to be gone as well. For all intents and purposes, Hynes appears to be a new man, and a new artist here. And yet, even with all of that change, he couldn't have put together an album much better than this one.
What's most striking is the immediate sense of depth one gets within seconds of the first track "Dead Head Blues." The song is filled with layered emotions and instrumentation, as Hynes has seemingly found his voice within his music. Though he still manages to amble off into his hokey storyteller mode at times, he has learned how to better choose his spots by this point. For most of Life Is Sweet!, he allows the music to tell the story for him, only interjecting when necessary. This shift is mostly made possible by the superior musical arrangements Hynes places on all 15 songs, whether entirely instrumental or not. From a more extensive strings section, to expert keyboard sounds or the more polished vocal pipes Hynes sports, the sound has somehow matured by leaps and bounds in a short amount of time.
One of the album's other strengths happens to be its sense for the dramatic. No, you won't hear an overcooked solo, or some half-baked attempt at falsetto crooning. However, as far as theatrical approaches go, when Hynes makes an effort here, it's dead-on. "Faculty of Fears" is about as poppy a song as he's ever put together, the track motoring along on the legs of driving guitar riffs and strong group of strings. Songs like "The Big Guns of Highsmith" and "Middle of the Dark" actually end up leaning on the most subtle homages to bands such as Queen, who thrived on theatrical presentation. Though you won't hear Hynes attempt to imitate Freddie Mercury any time soon, the comparison in the musical composition, specifically when employing the likes of all-male choruses, or some spiraling (yet appropriate) guitar solo.
On the more conventional side, Hynes displays his talents for musical composition without the assistance of words as well. Both intermission tracks are just showcases for some light experimentation with guitar and keyboard, yet they come off as so much more than that. He even tries his hand at a classical piano number, and succeeds with startling positive results on "Etude Op. 3 'Goodnight Michalek'." Experimenting with electronic effects and the like, "Smooth Day (At the Library)" acts as a soft jazz number, then an electronic ballad of steady lament. There's even a track for doo-wop fans, as "I Don't Want to Wake Up Alone" discusses loneliness with more of a tidied up Motown vibe. Though this author certainly wasn't averse to his previously crass approach, the cleaner lyrical content does allow for a much tidier sound overall, and helps speak to the true maturity of this record.
The strides taken by Lightspeed Champion on Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You can be overwhelming to longtime fans. Many knew that he had always had something like this in him. Hell, if you listened to any portion of the 10-minute epic "Midnight Surprise" from Falling Off the Lavender Bridge, you'd be well aware of this fact. But, still, this album manages to catch us off guard. It's not as if he's refined just one portion of his skill set. Everything is different, and thus, it's almost like we're listening to a different artist. And Hynes actually ends up being better off for it. As much as we'll miss the downtrodden heartbreak of tracks like "Galaxy of the Lost," the harnessing of all of the potential contained within it is a fair trade off. If he continues making music up to this standard, there's no telling how many accolades he'll eventually receive.
Best Track: "Faculty of Fears"
[Previously on Animal Noises: Tuesday's Release (2/16): Now Streaming]