Journalists talk about British artist Lianne La Havas when they can also pull up a dossier of loose associates and RIYLs. You know the sort: She’s 23, going on indeterminately mature. On debut Is Your Love Big Enough, her voice can be strong, in that trained way that makes fans reach for words like “authentic,” or wispy as tissues, making fans reach for the same. Her first EP, Lost & Found, was immensely likable acoustica that got her a spot on the show Later… with Jools Holland, that in turn got her plaudits from pleasant folk like tourmate Bon Iver. She sang backup for perpetual retro hopeful Paloma Faith. She made the BBC’s Sound of 2012 shortlist alongside blog favorites A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean and dubstep dudes like Flux Pavilion and Skrillex. There, La Havas and fellow finalists Ren Harvieu and winner Michael Kiwanuka seemed to form a counter-contingent: Not brash, but mannered; not trendy; but meticulously timeless.
“La Havas gives it a specific masochism, the kind where you almost want another breakup just for that extra moment of contact, that last hug goodbye.”
That phrase “meticulously timeless” is now a marketing pitch, thanks to exemplar Adele moving albums when others’ dismal sales suggest they may as well hawk CafePress keychains. The industry response is predictable; Britain’s manufacturing new Adeles so tirelessly it’s a wonder the nation’s Olympic opening ceremony didn’t address it after the industrial revolution. But though La Havas gets grouped with those artists, the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Her songs draw not from ‘60s soul or diva standards but from jazz-pop sorts like Neneh Cherry or Sade, and she’s nothing like the likes of Paloma Faith, whose every single begs “Am I Dusty yet? Or at least Duffy?” Her peers, instead, are Norah Jones, Esperanza Spalding and Corinne Bailey Rae — not exactly critical darlings. Detractors damn them with praise — too tasteful, too controlled, too coffee shop — and their legitimate defenders tend to forget them within the month. They win Grammys more readily than hearts. But like most broad dismissals, this neglects the music; Rae’s The Sea and Spalding’s Radio Music Society are winsomely life-affirming, and Jones’ Danger Mouse murder ballad (yes) “Miriam” is among this year’s best. Treat an album like background music, and of course it’ll recede into background adjectives.
That said, you could still call La Havas “controlled” — it’s all she sings about. “I lost control of my heart and soul,” La Havas laments on the first track of Is Your Love Big Enough? with vocals so taut and measured you wonder what could have possibly been sacrificed. On the deceptively breezy “Age,” her biggest concern’s not the man’s age difference nor propensity for heartbreak, but that he does only what he’s told with her dignity. And again, on “Tease Me,” she talks of letting her guard down, but only enough to allow her voice a crackle and the guitar a few candlelight flickers before both bid adieu. Even when she lets loose, in the tUnE-yArDs roar of “Forget,” you never think she’ll break out of her arrangements.
Those arrangements, though, are fantastic. “Forget” lays out a spiky thicket for her ex, with massed Imogen Heap vocals that recur in “Don’t Wake Me Up” and “Elusive.” She’s deliberate about her harmonies; on duet “No Room For Doubt,” they don’t complement partner Willy Mason so much as go flat to undercut him. The song’s less about love than ambivalence, and though La Havas’ lyrics can tend toward rote — see rhymed-out “Gone,” where “What the heck, man?” is intoned in complete earnest — they’re as often subtle. “Lost & Found” is her album’s “Someone Like You,” a breakup ballad murmured over a comforter-soft piano line, but La Havas gives it a specific masochism, the kind where you almost want another breakup just for that extra moment of contact, that last hug goodbye. “You taught me how to truly hate myself/ Teach me to be somebody else,” she sings, knowing he won’t. Or take “Au Cinema.” The story’s silly, a tale of a nice young girl dazzled by the benign bright lights off the Brooklyn Bridge, nothing like the wacky grotesquery of the name-checked Triplets of Belleville. But tellingly, there’s no story for any corresponding nice young man, and the way she sings “alone” reveals this as imagined reverie, so gorgeous you can’t blame her. The title track, meanwhile, could be La Havas’ elevator pitch. No, not because of “I found myself in a secondhand guitar,” no matter how often it’s repeated like a slogan. It’s later, when she asks “Is your love big enough for what’s to come?” — not to a lover or friend but to the listener. What’s to come, for La Havas, could well be great. All she needs is listeners willing to love.