They’re kids! That was the general tenor of the discussion around the UK duo Let’s Eat Grandma two years ago, when they released their debut album I, Gemini. Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth met each other in a kindergarten art class in their shared hometown of Norwich, and they’ve been best friends and collaborators ever since. They were both teenagers when they released I, Gemini, an album that sounded like what happens when two kids build their own dreamworld and get lost in it. There was something charming and intuitive about that album’s gauzy psychedelic swirl, even if it still showed plenty of bad ideas. (There was a part where they both rapped.) The general consensus, at least if I’m remembering it right, was that Let’s Eat Grandma had come up with an impressive, promising debut, especially for an album made by a couple of teenagers. But there’s a problem with that formulation. Because Walton and Hollingworth are still both teenagers now, and yet they’re kids! is an entirely insufficient way to frame I’m All Ears, their new album.
On every level, I’m All Years is a tremendous leap for Let’s Eat Grandma, a whole order of magnitude more confident and fully realized than I, Gemini. The new album is the moment where Walton and Hollingworth move far beyond the starry-eyed warmth and genre-agnostic twee of their debut. Instead, it’s an album with tremendous style and adventurous self-assurance. The two young friends play around with indie rock and synthpop and psychedelia and dance music with absolute calm and focus, and they do it while smartly interrogating relationship dynamics and the illusions that we build up around each other. They’ve integrated big-name collaborators without losing their own voices, and they’ve found a way to blow their sound all the way out while still keeping it hard and grounded. It’s a textbook example of the moment when a newish artist goes beyond “promising” and into the zone of “just straight-up good.”
Let’s Eat Grandma are still relative unknowns, so it’s probably not surprising to see so much of the pre-release hype around I’m All Ears going to the group’s collaborators. The duo wrote the two early singles “Hot Pink” and “It’s Not Just Me” with the team of SOPHIE, the dizzying mutant-pop producer who just released her own excellent debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, and Farris Badwan, frontman of the great Brit-rock shapeshifters the Horrors. It’s a canny choice of collaborators. In SOPHIE, they’ve found someone currently exploding pop convention in ways that are challenging and exciting. In Badwan, they’ve found someone who knows about being in a British band that’s trying to make the grand blind leap into greatness. And together, these four people have made two giddy, fluttering, heart-palpitatingly intense pop songs. “Hot Pink” is a snarly breakup song being transmitted from the inside of a celestial pinball machine, while “It’s Not Just Me” could be an absolute roller-disco jam in some better alternate reality.
Those songs are total triumphs, and they’re also clear signs that Let’s Eat Grandma have come to understand exactly what they’re doing. But those two songs are also the only ones to feature the involvement of SOPHIE and Badwan. And it’s to Walton and Hollingworth’s tremendous credit that those two songs don’t overshadow the rest of the record. The two friends recorded most of the album with producer David Wrench, whose previous biggest production credit is probably Bear In Heaven’s I Love You, It’s Cool. Wrench isn’t as showy a name as SOPHIE or Badwan, and yet the album doesn’t really flag at all in its other songs. Instead, Let’s Eat Grandma use his slick synthetic textures to explore sounds and ideas and feelings with exactly the same level of grace and confidence that they had on those two singles. That means that Walton and Hollingworth are the geniuses here. They get the credit.
The rest of the album veers all over the map. “Cool & Collected” is a dazed-but-passionate nine-minute guitar-jangle, one that builds up to quiet emotional crescendoes. “Falling Into Me” is rippling, sighing synthetic dance-pop with some truly inspired cowbell work. “I Will Be Waiting” has Beach House-esque organs and reverb-drenched ahh-ahhh backing vocals and icy xylophone chimes; it’s a piece of music trapped between the worlds of dream-pop and actual pop, drawing some of the best things from both places. “Snakes & Ladders” sounds like a warehouse art-space remix of Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman.” And then there’s the album-closing 11-minute stunner “Donnie Darko,” which builds from tough and precise indie-pop to expansive house stomp and then contracts back again.
Musical wandering is nothing new for Let’s Eat Grandma, though they’re doing it with a sense of purpose and clarity now that they didn’t have on the first album. But one thing that’s entirely new is the duo’s lyrical focus. On “Hot Pink,” for instance, they witheringly pick apart the ways that another person refuses to see them as actual people: “I’m just an object of disdain to you / I’m only 17, I don’t know what you mean.” But a few minutes later, they’re also reminding the song’s target of the unreciprocated emotional work that they’re doing: “You wouldn’t believe the lengths I’ve gone to for you / You wouldn’t believe the shit that I can do.” The whole song works as both a plea and a threat — both getting across that we should not underestimate them.
“Cool & Collected,” on the other hand, is a confident song about having a crippling lack of confidence. On that one, Walton and Hollingworth sing about being in awe of someone else and about how that feeling can then make them like themselves less: “I’m just so obsessed with you / I’m always such a mess with you… I wish I was you / I blur in the haze that you cut straight through.” And even a throwaway line about cell phones — “I don’t wanna say goodbye / Guess I’ll see you when my screen is vibrating” — carries a certain poetic force.
Walton and Hollingworth, whose voices are so similar that I haven’t yet learned to tell them apart, both sound a bit like Lorde. They’ve got that untrained grace, that observational wryness that can be a bit flat vocally but only in expressive ways. And like Lorde, they have now moved from precocious novelty to genuine force. But that’s where the comparison ends. Lorde is gunning for a boutiquey form of pop stardom, and she is excelling at it. Let’s Eat Grandma are making clean, appealing, accessible music, but it’s not really pop in the same way that Lorde is. Instead, they’re building their own soundworlds. I have a feeling that they’re only going to get better at it. But as of right now, they’ve come a whole lot further than most of us will ever get.
I’m All Ears is out 6/29 on Transgressive.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Drake’s as-yet-unheard world-conquerer Scorpion.
• Florence + The Machine’s gauzy, hard-whooping High As Hope.
• Gorillaz’ melancholic bloop-pop quickie The Now Now.
• Self Defense Family’s expansive post-hardcore rager Have You Considered Punk Music.
• Late Bloomer’s passionate, hard-crashing rocker Waiting.
• My Morning Jacket leader Jim James’ solo album Uniform Distortion.
• The Essex Green’s exuberant psych-popper Hardly Electronic.
• The Innocence Mission’s folky, idyllic Sun On The Square.
• ’90s indie tunesmiths the Rock*A*Teens’ reunion album Sixth House.
• Young Widows offshoot Jaye Jayle’s dark, forbidding rocker No Trail And Other Unholy Paths.
• Gwenifer Raymond’s twangy UK folk debut You Were Never Much Of A Dancer.
• Former Dirty Beaches mastermind Alex Zhang Hungtai’s Divine Weight.
• Charles Lloyd & The Marvels and Lucinda Williams’ collaborative album Vanished Gardens.
• Red Baraat’s worldly, danceable Sound The People.
• John Coltrane’s unearthed recording Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album.
• Fufanu’s Dialogue I EP.
• Spencer Radcliffe & Everyone Else’s If I Knew How EP.
• Fleabite’s NVM EP.