The last time that the lady and gentlemen of Sweden’s Little Dragon graced us with their musical presence was 2011’s Ritual Union, a New Wave-y electro-dance-pop confection that, though flirting with mainstream-ready content, continued their quirky, left-of-center musical sensibilities. For their next act, Nabuma Rubberband, the crew, consisting of Yukimi Nagano on vocals, Erik Bodin on drums, Håkan Wirinstrand on keys and Fredrik Wallin on bass, tread into darker, more emotional waters as they expand their sound and style, and perhaps aim even more directly at the mainstream.
Even if Yukimi hadn’t previously mentioned the Janet Jackson inspiration that would be felt on the album, lead track “Mirror” is a dead giveaway. Sounding like the musical cousin of Janet’s Control and Rhythm Nation era slow jams, it finds Yukimi reflecting on a lover that’s left her blue (a theme that’s constant throughout Rubberband‘s 42-minute runtime). But it’s not the only place that JDJ is felt on the set. Other numbers, like the cautionary “Pretty Girls,” despondent slow jam “Cat Rider” and the floating vibe of “Pink Cloud” can trace their musical DNA back to the youngest Jackson. Still, though they have Janet’s vibe (and Yukimi at times imitates Janet’s whispery, layered vocals), the feel is all Little Dragon, with poetic lyrics and spacy synths adding a bit of bite and punch.
Elsewhere, Little Dragon updates their unique sound by adding a few new elements. Lead single “Klapp Klapp” injects a bit of jazz sensibility before fading into buzzing synth and handclaps and starting the frenetic track, one of the best singles the group’s ever released. Then there’s “Underbart,”which seems to be an amalgamation of Machine Dreams‘ “Runabout” and Ritual Union‘s “Brush the Heat” with the pronounced presence of cowbell and intricate hi-hat rhythms tempered by interesting vocal work from Yukimi. And, of course, you have the refined electro-pop of “Paris” and “Killing Me.” The former trades in lovelorn New Wave as Yukimi contemplates escaping it all after being hurt by love. The latter is more fiery, as evidenced in its electronic buzz and lyrics that indict an indifferent lover that’s draining the life out of a relationship.
The album’s beating heart, however, is its standout title track, “Nabuma Rubberband.” Over a shuffling synth piano rhythm backed by a constant snare tap and 808 kick, Yukimi’s sweet vocal tells the story of someone who’s lost their way. “Don’t forget us and all the sights, because you can/Blinded by the rubberbands,” she sings after being suddenly backed by strings on the song’s chorus. “Only One” is another highlight. A minimal track with no percussion at its start, it slowly builds, introducing instrument after instrument and rhythm after rhythm to pair with Yukimi’s simple vocal, until it climaxes into a dance-y, electronic burner that abruptly ends. The album comes to a close with the cathartic “Let Go,” an atmospheric jam that perfectly ends Nabuma Rubberband and adds a fitting bit of closure to the set.
Though Little Dragon worked with outside sources, like Robin Hannibal and De La Soul‘s Dave “Trugoy” Jolicoeur, who counts a writing credit here, the group didn’t lose a step or sacrifice the sound that’s earned them their indie cred. However, they do deviate enough that not everyone who’s followed them will be down for this particular journey. Still, the group has created one of their most cohesive and mainstream albums to date, one that mines deep feeling and unexpected inspiration to create a sonically and emotionally satisfying effort.