As LoneLady, Julie Campbell’s 2010 debut ‘Nerve Up’ was a paean to the long-demolished Factory Records – tower-block terse and full of the miseries of Ian Curtis. 2015’s poppier ‘Hinterland’ widened her musical scope, but it still reverberated with Martin Hannett’s Manchester. Imagine Ena Sharples balconied over a sketchy Moss Side, but with Day-Glo leggings and a curler-clad disco wig. Now we have album number three, an achievement that was beyond fellow Manc legends The Stone Roses and, er, Molly Half Head. I may possibly have run out of Manchester references.
Campbell performed a great balancing act on ‘Hinterland’. She trudged through the drying concrete of post-punk while keeping things urgent and, yes, poppy. ‘Former Things’ develops that balancing act, walking an impressive line between grey-faced doubt and swaggering confidence. Or if you prefer blunter metaphors, it’s a 1970s trench coat streaked with glitter.
“I just can’t get to the feeling,” complains Campbell on opener ‘The Catcher’ while proceeding to absolutely nail the feeling. Sparse Gillian Gilbert chords and tripping drum fills are touch-lit with bright bursts of melody and lacerating guitar wails. Infectious lead single ‘(There Is) No Logic’ increases the ante, beefing up the opening track’s squelchy synth bass and turning Campbell’s vocals into a sample board. The melody underpinning the nihilistic mantra of the song’s title must be among LoneLady’s greatest moments.
If that wasn’t quite pop enough, title track ‘Former Things’ completes a triple melodic whammy. Feather-light strumming and electronic orchestral plucks, as pastoral as a summer’s afternoon, accompany a lament about losing her former magic. “I’m caught in a malady,” she says alongside handclaps and a bittersweet “nanna-nanna” singalong that would make Sarah Blackwood proud. Confidence and doubt.
Any one of those opening tracks could again rear its head in the early hours, setting your earworm for the rest of the day. But this isn’t just about the melody. Those uneasy lyrics are working a magic you haven’t quite noticed yet because you’re probably too busy air-synthing to the vocal stabs on ‘(There Is) No Logic’. The strangled guitar makes another appearance on ‘Time Time Time’, a breathless DFA workout that leads into the darker ‘Threats’, a staccato song full of spiky suspicion that could be Kraftwerk’s ‘Home Computer’ stricken by a virus. Threats are everywhere she turns, and the song’s dramatic one-word hook begs to be embellished by ‘Dr. Caligari’ wall shadows. “The fear is coming for you too,” she adds on ‘Fear Colours’, which introduces processed, vocoder-style vocals and a slappy 1980s snare while reviving the architectural simplicity of ‘Nerve Up’. Before you know it, doubt rises on its haunches and confidence cowers ever smaller. Button up that trench coat and shake off that glitter.
The closing tracks dial down the urgency somewhat. The reverberating ‘Treasure’ goes easier on the synths as Campbell yearns for a reward she will probably never find. There’s a similar liminality to the final piece, ‘Terminal Ground’. It’s electro-shocked with a sparky acid bass, but it’s slow to offer a musical or thematic resolution. “I don’t know what’s going to happen right now,” she says, before asking us not to let go of our dreams. It’s amazing how hollow this final appeal feels. That’s because about halfway through the album, we “got to the feeling” and never quite escaped. Feelings of doubt, of paranoia and uncertainty, albeit threaded with memorable hooks – all the things that make for truly landmark pop music.
Crumbs. How did we get here? I was banging on about Manchester earlier, and now thanks to old misery guts, I’m in a morass of mid-life existentialism. “Waking from the dream is brave,” said the self-assured Campbell on 2010’s jangly ‘Intuition’. “You can kill or be prey,” she declared with an animalistic verve well suited to such an effortless, instinctive debut.
Eleven years later, we can still trace a post-punk path to LoneLady’s early work, and her trusty 8-track Tascam recorder is never far away. However, this third album leads us into new LoneLady territory, into an undefined city where the buildings loom over you, singing “nanna-nanna”. How did we get here? We got older, that’s how. More than a decade after her debut, ‘Former Things’ hits a strikingly mature note as it tips us down a spiral of relatable angst with incredible style.
And maybe that’s where the magic lies – a musical manifestation of life’s ever-increasing worries that is still tremendously listenable. Ena looks on, as scowly as ever, while LoneLady mainlines the glitter.