Lauren Theisen: “We are beautiful. We are doomed:” A lyrical guide to indie rock’s best-kept secret
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“I’m taking far too many chances / On these less than idealistic romances.”
Nobody would have picked the scrappy Welsh band with cutesy matching last names and gleefully overwrought song titles to secretly become one of the best bands of its generation, but I don’t think even Los Campesinos! themselves ever expected to survive their own brief moment. Their first full-length, Hold On Now, Youngster, is where you can find this line, from a track titled “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats.”
(If you don’t like that song title, I probably shouldn’t tell you about “This Is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics.’ ”)
Already on 2008’s Youngster, the Campesinos! — yes, all 11 members, past and present, have taken that last name — were already recording like they’d never get another shot at an album. On “Breakbeats” alone, the opening count-off is shrieked by every band member, Aleks Campesinos! gets a line in about Spider-Man in the chorus, and bandleader Gareth sings at least some of his lyrics like he’s trying to imitate the tortured wailing of the old Internet dial-up sound.
The songcraft of Los Campesinos! has always been less than idealistic, less than commercially viable. These songs are filled with obscure lyrical references, too many instruments, multiple lead singers and catchy hooks buried under breakneck tempos played by overactive musicians. This is not a band criminally deprived of fame. This is an underdog band that has taken aim at a very specific kind of listener — one that’s awkward and anxious, but loves to dance and shout their feelings — and hit them square in the heart.
“We’re undeveloped, we’re ignorant, we’re stupid, but we’re happy.”
This is probably the one you know. Well, you probably don’t know the lyric, because Gareth stuffs it into a mile-a-minute rant at the end of the song, quietly slipping it underneath the final chorus amid lines comparing supermarkets to discotheques. But you might know the slow, opening guitar build-up to this seven-minute opus from the debut album. I think it was in a beer commercial once, which makes it LC’s most-heard song by a longshot.
“You! Me! Dancing!” crystallized Los Campesinos! as part of something called “blog rock,” which basically came about when MySpace was still a thing and everyone was excited rather than horrified at the unlimited possibilities of the World Wide Web. It was the first time bands didn’t need a label to distribute music, and it gave a lot of left-field bands 15 minutes of fame.
Most blog rock outfits were overhyped and faded away after an album or two, but LC! have held on for dear life. Listen to the debut, and they’re just as jittery and smart-alecky as all their peers, but this line from “Dancing!” completely undersells the band. Lurking underneath all the distracting frills, soon to emerge, are beautiful anthems.
“I identify my star sign / By asking which is least compatible with yours”
By the next album, Gareth and the band seemed smarter, more developed, but unhappy. This comes off the opening track to Youngster’s follow-up, "We are Beautiful, We Are Doomed," and it’s the best way to say “fuck you” I’ve ever heard.
Albums two and three in the Campesinos! catalog are pricklier than the youthful, instrument-inclusive debut. They’re made for catharsis rather than dancing, dense with guitar noise and emotion while trying once again to obscure catchy hooks and choruses. “Shout at the world, because the world doesn’t love you,” goes one indicative line.
They’re also the albums where Gareth solidifies his persona as a songwriter. He’s unlucky in love, either because he’s too obstinate or too clingy in relationships. He’s constantly worried about the future. He suffers no fools. He believes his break-ups should be front-page worthy tragedies. Aleks is always there to counterpoint, though: “You think you're the needle that drains the blood donation / You're just a repetition on an old, worn out pin cushion,” is so bizarre and brilliant it could only come from the Campesinos!.
“Here it comes / This is the crux / She vomits down my rental tux.”
But if Gareth swaggered around every song like a misanthropic wanker, LC! would be borderline unlistenable. Thank Morrissey he’s got a sense of humor too, one that continually allows him to narrate himself into memorably hilarious situations.
“I've spent too much time on my knees / Next to urinals in garish Mexican restaurants / Sobbing into my warm, pale palms / For a better understanding of my dietary requirements,” he shamelessly admits on “Miserabilia.”
Even better, on “By Your Hand,” he imagines an entire hook-up with Fate, personified as the prettiest girl in the world. They kiss for hours, and her hand is down Gareth’s trousers when she invites him back to her place.
“But here it comes, this is the crux,” he sings. “She vomits down my rental tux.”
In a review of the new Campesinos!, Sick Scenes, Pitchfork editor Ryan Dombal called Gareth Campesinos! “our bard of throwing up.” He writes, “Nearly every word that has come out of the Los Campesinos! singer’s mouth has presented itself with rash inelegance, candidness and the need to be ejected from his body this very second.”
That is entirely the appeal of this quixotic band. Gareth cannot contain himself, and these odd, ultra-specific feelings that get spewed out over the course of every Campesinos! album somehow look the same as a lot of other people’s inner guts. He’s failed to digest all of his own experiences and throws them back out through his art, and what do you know — his misfortune makes a lot of fans feel less alone in their own awkward everyday screw-ups and missed opportunities.
The best icebreaker I’ve ever been a part of is, “When was the last time you threw up?” That’s how you learn about a person; that’s how you hear the best stories.
What I’m trying to say is, everybody pukes. Gareth is just the one who writes all about it.
“They promised they'd be best of friends from now until forever / But both were far too needy not to fall for the other.”
No Campesinos! song has fascinated me more than *inhales* “A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State; or, Letters from Me to Charlotte.” For the record, I don’t think it has anything to do with a relationship between Gareth and Aleks, but no song better illustrates their chemistry.
“Heat Rash” is a quieter, meditative song about a tempestuous couple. It’s still a Campesinos! song, so you’ll hear the word “erection” when you listen, but unlike the overflowing drama of most of their songs, this one is more restrained and thought-through, open to many interpretations. The voices of dual-singers Gareth and Aleks mix perfectly here, with Gareth taking the narrative verses with his usual directness and Aleks hitting notes of longing on the more ambiguous chorus.
Unfortunately, Aleks left after three albums, which makes releases four and five a little less dynamic. She was the best foil Gareth could have asked for, and the loss of her presence is naturally a little tough to adjust to.
“Renato Dall’Ara, living off 2008 / Renato Dall’Ara, once up then back down again.”
I don’t think I can understate how miraculous it is that this band is still making albums. Indie rock is not a viable business anymore, unless you’re doing arenas like Arcade Fire or banging out afternoon sets at every festival that calls. Los Campesinos! is not a stable endeavor, and they rely on their hardcore fans more than a major-label pop star ever could.
This line, off the opening track of Sick Scenes, is one of many obscure (for Americans) soccer references you’ll find throughout the Campesinos’ work, but there’s some pretty clear double meaning here, with 2008 also being the release of Hold On Now, Youngster. Gareth has said, too, the “once up then back down again” line refers to how, in the music industry, “you play a venue once on the way up and once on the way back down.”
But if Sick Scenes is Los Campesinos! on the way back down, it’s a return to form and a fantastic way to bottom out. After two solid albums, this sixth effort is their most exciting in years, filled once more with weirdly danceable arrangements and easily quotable lines. In the very first verse of this track, Gareth snidely cuts at a self-professed Marxist reading by his parents’ pool. (“It’s only outdoor and it isn’t heated.”)
Sick Scenes is mature yet fun and everything else you could ask for from a veteran band, and it’s hard not to wish that Los Campesinos! had received more public attention when you listen. It’s hard to tell if this new release is an artistic resurgence or a proper finale for a group that by all odds should have been dead eight years ago, but more than anything it just makes me hope that these albums survive long enough to influence another young, up-and-coming band — one who can shine a light on all these should-be classics.
“We are beautiful / We are doomed.”
This is the one. This line, the titular culmination of my absolute favorite song, is why I needed to write so many words about these Welsh would-be deities. It starts with four staccato synth notes that roll into a repeating melody. There are strings and a glockenspiel along with the guitars. It’s epic.
Gareth isn’t rapping, but he’s sort of speak-singing as fast as he can, ranting at you about the slow dissolving of his relationship and that time he ate too many crisps and threw up while playing soccer. He slows down for this gutwrenchingly honest line: “You feel terrified at the thought of being left behind / Of losing everybody, the necessity of dying.” Then he turns up the shouting for this classic quote: “Oh, we kid ourselves there's future in the fucking / But there is no fucking future.”
Gareth is angry and jealous and lost. He’s working out strategies to keep from being heartbroken but finds himself outmaneuvered every time. The last quote from him I’ll write out is the climax, in its entirety:
“I cannot emphasis enough that my body / Is a badly designed, poorly put-together vessel / Harboring these diminishing, so-called vital organs / I hope my heart goes first. I HOPE MY HEART GOES FIRST!”
Los Campesinos! is a band that’s always ready to die, but thrilled to have lived and loved. They couldn’t control the volume of their voices, the number of instruments they let into the mix or the intensity of detail in all their embarrassing anecdotes. They’ve spent a decade reaching out from Wales to the rest of the world, looking for pissed-off romantics who’d always be up and then back down again. They’ve touched a very specific subset that likes erudite soccer references and awkward, inclusive dancing in equal measure. They’ve inspired at least one case of extreme devotion. They’ve always been doomed to fail. They’ve always been beautiful.