Little Dragon’s ‘New Me, Same Us’ coheres brilliantly as an album, hooking the listener with kinetic tracks and simmering, simmering down until the record’s atmospheric closer.
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New Me, Same Us marks the sixth studio release from the multitalented Swedish band, and it comes dripping with a new sense of humanity. This isn’t the least because the band – through Håkan Wirenstrand, keyboard player and tech wizard – told us such. While the band has been saddled with countless labels over their now 24 year lifespan – trip hop, downtempo, alternative R&B, the bastard chimera indietronica – New Me, Same Us presents, as its title might suggest, not a revolution or an about face but an evolution of a maturing act. Little Dragon are at their best on New Me, Same Us, a new album Håkan relates has been Dragon’s most collaborative yet.
Stream: ‘New Me, Same Us’ – Little Dragon
Little Dragon constitutes one of the acts of trip-hop / chill-hop canon. It’s a genre that has evolved several times over even before its explosion on YouTube pirate radio stations decorated with looping animations of that Studio Ghibli looking girl. Little Dragon though remains one of its patron saints and alongside acts like BADBADNOTGOOD and Flying Lotus make up a canon of bands mixing new hip hop techniques with the jazz theory, though each band practices their own discipline of the craft so differently that chillhop – or whatever – itself becomes an indictment of music journalists’ compulsive need to categorize.
For their part, Little Dragon has always emphasized the chill or downtempo aspects of this sonic confederation. New Me, Same Us is a more energetic record, and while it would be wrong to say it’s more poppy, there’s certainly a more recognizable R&B structure to a number of the songs. Comparing the funky “Hold On” from New Me, Same Us to the capricious “Celebrate” from Season High reveals Little Dragon’s deliberate evolution.
“Hold On” is sonically more mature, with a singular rhythm that’s exceptionally polished without sacrificing its depth. Yukimi Nagano remains a sublimely unique vocalist whose articulation bewitches with its sharp attack and rapid back off to an emotive legato. It’s rare that a singer can make you feel the cadence, the explosion and rest between sharp consonants and soft vowels, of words like Nagano. To her, every line is a poem of itself – she is tidal, pushing and pulling words in a sacred organic rhythm.
New Me, Same Us coheres brilliantly as an album, hooking the listener with kinetic tracks like “Another Lover” and simmering, simmering down until the album’s atmospheric closer, “Water.” “Another Lover” marks a temporary fascinating moment on the album, with Nagano’s flow, usually free above the steady rhythm of the band, anchoring an odd two-over-three feel. Drums skitter over an intermittent bass beat and creamy, detuned chords. “Water,” aptly named, is a sunbeam shining through murky water and illuminating the ocean floor. It drips (oof) atmosphere and eventually ends on an aquatic fade out with bubbling synth that could be the breath of an ancient whale made sonic.
From stem to stern, New Me, Same Us is an album with a clear artistic and procedural evolution. Håkan’s remarks that the album was more collaborative than usual for the band could not be more clear in the album’s execution.
It’s here we must digress from a pure discussion of music for music’s sake. Perhaps it’s a hack movie, but it’s hard during the COVID-19 pandemic not to notice the way Håkan talks about music, and indeed society as a whole. During our conversation he emphasized the nature of Swedish society and how it may have been the decisive element that enabled Little Dragon to form in the first place. We discussed briefly the policy that enables this kind of artistic freedom: healthcare not tied to employment, a generous state endowment for the arts as a whole, a robust welfare state rooted in the Scandinavian model of social democracy.
These policy positions should be fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the region and the common rhetoric surrounding it in the US. But it wasn’t the pragmatism that stood out, immersed as we are in a Democratic primary where the unprecedented frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, espouses all of these ideals and more. It was Håkan’s ethos, demeanor that art is inexorably tied to a greater social picture. The US does not have this appreciation for leisure or art, and in fact at times feels actively hostile, rooted maybe in some bizarre perversion called the Protestant Work Ethic, or maybe the meaningless but frenetic standstill of finance and equity dominating the US economy.
New Me, Same Us is not a direct indictment of any of this. Far from it. But Little Dragon’s recording process, their successes, the pure intangible experience of listening to their music, all bring the nature of art in our world into stark relief against the backdrop of a global pandemic and economic crash. All artifice is stripped away and we’re forced to ask what is really valuable, and what is manufactured.
Our conversation eventually became philosophical; we discussed the nature of music as a form of communication and human interaction. Though this conversation took place before the pandemic designation emerged, global quarantine thrusts these questions about art and value at us again with renewed urgency. Artists’ performances move to the digital realm and the feelings of modern human atomisation, modern human loneliness, lay raw.
Though Håkan and I did not find any answers, New Me, Same Us may be one suggestion by way of musical beauty.
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? © Ellen Edmar
New Me, Same Us
an album by Little Dragon