According to Lianne La Havas, she started writing songs for her latest album shortly after a breakup. That makes sense, because soul music is practically made for heartache. Or seduction, but the heartache brings out a sharper tang. The resulting self-titled album is smooth and bittersweet, luxuriating in La Havas’s resonant voice and the intracies of the music. It’s so bittersweet, in fact, that the word provides the title to the song that opens and closes the album, in basically identical versions except for a minute difference in the runtimes. “Bittersweet” announces itself with clomping keyboard tones, a shuffling drumbeat, and La Havas murmuring her way into lyrics that entangle sorrow and emotional rejuvenation: “I’m born again/ All my broken pieces.” The album’s thesis is stated, and La Havas proceeds to bolster her argument with tender conviction.
Lianne La Havas is so polished that it practically gleams. Working with a tight pack of songwriting and producing collaborators, La Havas often seems to be feeling her way to emotional poignancy. She explores freely in the music, favoring piercing direct lyrics that the music can eddy around. On “Seven Times,” a plunking acoustic guitar line with a tinge of Latin flavor evolves into a sly, funky beat, and La Havas takes a strategically repetitive chorus anchored by the lines “All night, all day, all night and day/ I cry and pray, I cry and pray” and transforms it into a hypnotic mantra of misery. It’s exhilarating in its easygoing creative adventure.
There are time when the groove is arguably too smooth, when the material settles into a zone that threatens a dulling uniformity. La Havas, though, always manages to pull out a nifty trick to again demand adoring attention, whether with her probing jazz-inflected vocals on “Green Papaya” or the gently jolting mood swings on “Sour Flower.” Maybe nothing demonstrates her assured musical prestidigitation than her cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes.” The complexity that can seem so labored when delivered by Thom Yorke and company becomes a rich, deeply felt portrait of sound in La Havas’s rendering, like she’s cracking open the universe by taking pleasure in the way a song comes together to articulate a truth of inner being that can’t conceivably be expressed any other way. I guess that’s just another way of marveling at her command of soul.