With a sound that was already excellent at conveying emotions, Local Natives have delivered a striking second album, weighted with complex feelings of loss, death and endurance.
After the success of 2009's debut, Gorilla Manor, the Los Angeles band hit some rough personal patches, leading to the emotional palette that makes Hummingbird such a captivating and hauntingly gorgeous album.
"All the subject matter is a little darker or heavier than what we were used to. Writing about things that are more difficult to deal with was definitely cathartic for the band," says drummer Matt Frazier. "We felt some amazing times after the success of the first record, and everything was doing well with touring, but after that we hit some really hard patches."
Since 2009, the band—now a quartet with Frazier and the songwriting/vocalist trio of Taylor Rice on guitar, Kelcey Ayer on keyboards and Ryan Hahn on guitar, after parting ways with bassist Andy Hamm—has experienced faltering relationships and even the death of family. Much of that, either directly in some vivid and forceful lyrics or more subtly in musical tone and structure, was channeled into Hummingbird.
The album begins slowly, deliberately and elegantly with "You & I," a meditative song guided by a steady, mournful drumbeat and a circling piano melody before bursting open with distorted, dissonant guitar fuzz.
"You and I we were always strong/ It was enough to keep me on," Ayer sings, his high voice drawn into a ghostly croon. It's a song about deep, stinging loss, and how in the depths of that feeling, even consolation seems impossible: "In all this light/ All I feel is dark/ Had the sun without its warmth/ I'm freezing."
"You & I" is a great example of not only how Local Natives have evolved from the band's debut—the sound here is bigger, more nuanced and with greater sweep—but also how effectively the musicians use musical shifts to frame the complexity of lyrical emotion.
Throughout the album, the lyrics recount struggles with confusion, heartache and grief, but with a mature understanding of the role loss plays in life, and the galvanizing strength that comes from acceptance. It's an album not only about persevering, but also about finding the right way to move on with life.
Though the band didn't set out to make its sophomore record deal with bleak and troubled emotional territory, Local Natives handled their own difficult times deftly in both lyrics and music, showing the sort of flexible creativity that's needed for a long career. Gorilla Manor was an accomplished debut, but Hummingbird moves the band into a higher realm. It's the sort of very personal art that nonetheless is relatable on an elemental level.
"Colombia" in particular is a heartbreaker, with Ayers singing of the unexpected death of his mother. It's a song not only about lasting love, but also of honoring those who've lived their lives as examples of kindness: "The day after I had counted down/ All of your breaths/ Down until there were none/ A hummingbird crashed right/ In front of me and I understood/ All you did for us/ You gave and gave and gave and gave/ Every night I ask myself/ Am I giving enough?"
"With the way the band writes, especially lyrics, it's very of the moment and honest, and we write about stuff we're going through, so it made sense for the album to be about some of our recent experiences," Frazier says.
The record took time to come together, he says. First, the band was focused on touring Gorilla Manor, capitalizing on local support from the NPR affiliate KCRW and the coveted "Best New Music" tag from Pitchfork. The demands of the road were too much for the band's consensus-driven writing process, so new songs had to wait.
"We had some ideas while touring, but it was really just bouncing around some bare bones stuff," Frazier says. "For us it's more difficult to write on the road because the way we operate is so collaborative. After we stopped touring and took a little breather, we built up a practice studio and made that our home base for the next year and a half."
That home base became crucial for Local Natives. The band members lived together when they created Gorilla Manor (the title comes from their name for the house) and needed somewhere to settle in and feel at ease for the second album.
"We've discovered that it's been really important to us to have our own zone to be in and call our own," Frazier says.
The songs started as just sparks or sketches, growing along the way with input from all four band members.
"There's three guys who are the songwriters per se in the band. They'll have a spark of an idea and they'll get it to a certain point and bring it to the table," Frazier says. "Each song has its own back story and there's no real rhyme or reason for us when it comes to the start of the writing process. But it definitely grows from one guy to two or three and four and there's an evolution."
For recording, the band turned to Aaron Dessner of the National, whom they'd befriended while on tour together.
"We were toying around with which studios we'd wanted to go to and when we finally made the decision to work with Aaron, it made the most sense for us to go to Aaron's studio in Brooklyn," Frazier says. "We'd spent about a year in L.A. writing, and we wanted to get out of our comfort zone and try something new and disappear from our Silver Lake bubble for a bit and totally focus on working on the record."
Local Natives took over the top two floors of Dessner's three-story Victorian house in Brooklyn, N.Y., taking the relocation seriously as they pieced together Hummingbird. Released Jan. 29, the album has drawn praise for its seriousness, maturity and musical growth.
Touring again, Local Natives enjoy drawing from a larger pool of songs, switching set lists night by night and using their new songs to build an emotional connection with audiences.
"It's revisiting the catharsis playing these songs live," Frazier says. "There's something amazing and wonderful about being able to connect with so many people night after night. I think it's really awesome when people can find their own meaning in a song, and I think it's cool when people can relate it to their own lives and it's something really special."