I’ve always found Little Dragon an incredibly hard group to write about. All the terms that you feel obliged to use to describe them (electronic soul, futuristic R&B, etc., etc.) end up tarnishing their music rather than embellishing it. So let’s begin with the facts: they’re from Sweden, this is their third album, they stole the show on the last Gorillaz album, everyone’s in love with the singer, Yukimi Nagano and they’re very, very good. Now comes the difficult part: the music.
So we know it’s good. Very, very good in fact, if you’re willing to take my word for it. That’s because they make the sort of music which makes the world a better place as soon as you put it on. If they were a book they’d be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s written with great style, is deeply affecting and effuses a distinctly dreamlike quality. Or to be slightly more prosaic, they make beautiful, soulful songs loosely based around synths, beats and dreamy vocals. Some are funky, some are sad, some are simply stunning. See? I told you it’s hard to describe.
If you’re already familiar with the band, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Ritual Union is a natural progression from the album that preceded it, Machine Dreams. Machine Dreams in turn marked a huge leap from their self-titled debut, a stunning, but scattergun album that was just a bit too eclectic for its own good. However, once you got used to the fact that no two tracks sounded the same, it was inevitable that you’d fall in love with its fragile beauty. But even so, little could have prepared you for the extreme left turn they took on Machine Dreams, where the synths came in and made like they were Prince on a very good day at the office. And it’s this magic that they’ve taken as the starting point for Ritual Union.
Which isn’t to say they’re standing still on Ritual Union, far from it. There’s still room for the eclecticism of their debut in their new direction with excursions into dubstep on “When I Go Out” and the groove led direction of “Brush The Heat.” The latter is a particularly neat metaphor for the album as whole: it’s hot, but it only occasionally flirts with all-out dance floor mayhem (like on the irresistible title track), preferring to weave its web more subtly, as with the sparse arrangements of “Crystalfilm.
What unites the album is, as ever, Yukumi’s ethereal voice. There’s a dreamlike, yearning quality to her vocals that’s further enhanced by the ambiguity of her lyrics. Even at her most direct, such as on “Please Turn,” it’s not entirely clear what she’s trying to communicate, but the emotion her voice conveys cuts straight to the bone. It grants Little Dragon the freedom to create such sparse arrangements and is largely the reason why they’re so devastatingly effective on every song.
Well, almost every song. “When I Go Out” is an exercise in trying something new that doesn’t quite work out, while “Precious” is a groove that doesn’t really go anywhere. So Ritual Union may not be a perfect album, but it is charming, intriguing and rewarding enough to ensure that you’ll overlook any flaws and keep coming back to give it another spin. And that’s something very special indeed.