Lianne La Havas - 'Blood' (2015)

Katy Gilbertson
September 4, 2020

This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.

Until I spent time with Lianne La Havas’ sophomore album, I never realized how much I loved the word “blood.” 

On first read, “blood” evokes danger, violence. Bodily harm. I picture bright red blood—and whenever you can see blood, you know something is wrong. Blood isn’t visible when it’s where it’s supposed to be. In that sense, blood is a symbol of pain. 

But less than a minute into “Unstoppable,” Blood’s opening track, it’s evident that the blood La Havas is dealing in is not the sort that incites fear. As a listener, I’m reminded that blood has another meaning: one of life, health, and lineage. The blood that runs through my veins, the metaphorical blood that ties me to my family, the idiomatic blood that can be boiling in anger or run cold in fear. 

“Unstoppable” is a rush of an opener—absolutely invigorating, its lyrics leave me convinced that love can indeed conquer all: “We’re weak and getting stronger / I know it’s taking the time to heal / We’ll be unstoppable… Our polarity shifted around / There is nothing else left holding us down.”

I first listened to this album back in 2015, when it came out, but it’s taken on a new meaning for me now. In a time marked by fear and confusion, “love,” however vaguely defined, feels like the only thing I can be sure of. Better yet, the idea of drifting off into space sounds particularly appealing this year. “Unstoppable” ends with reassurance: “The stars will guide the way / In the dead of space / You will be my one and only.” 

Fitting, then, that there isn’t a stroke of blood red on the album art. Rather, La Havas stands in front of a wash of pink—like the flush of warm cheeks, blood safely housed under the surface. I think that feeling of comfort is why, when La Havas’ third album came out earlier this summer, I found myself returning to Blood

La Havas, the 31-year-old Londoner, first gained international attention with her debut album, 2012’s Is Your Love Big Enough? Her deft guitar playing caught the attention of Prince, and she wound up featuring heavily on his 2014 album Art Official Age. The two performed on Saturday Night Live together, and he announced his 2014 UK “Hit and Run” tour at a press conference in La Havas’ living room

While working on Blood, La Havas spent time in Jamaica, where her mother grew up. On the second track, “Green and Gold,” La Havas traces her upbringing, coming from Jamaican and Greek heritage. “Those eyes you gave to me / That let me see / Where I come from,” she sings on the chorus. 

If “Unstoppable” assures me that love is a mighty force, “Green and Gold” reminds me that it comes in many forms. As a whole, Blood invokes love’s full spectrum. There’s that familial love of “Green and Gold,” there’s self-love (“And now I'm fully grown / And I'm seeing everything clearer / Just sweep away the dust from the mirror”), and there’s romantic love. Much of Blood speaks to the power of two. It’s hard to pick a favorite of the album’s odes. There’s the blissful “What You Don’t Do”—the very first Lianne La Havas song I heard, which drew me to Blood in the first place—infused with a striking combination of intimacy, maturity, and whimsy. And there’s “Wonderful”—spare but saturated, unashamedly nostalgic but with no hint of despair. 

And then there’s “Midnight,” which I find the most immersive. La Havas seems to do everything at once. At times, the lyrics invoke a similar us-against-the-world ethos as “Unstoppable”: “We’re getting lost in another time / Your hand in mine.” At other moments, she seems to rally a whole community: “Honey, if you care to join me / Come meet the team / And you all could be my army.” Somehow simultaneously, she’s speaking about her own internal world: “People think I’m crazy, lately I’m / living in midnight… You’ll never know / the places I go / When I'm alone.” It’s also an especially dynamic song, building from a reserved, cool tone to what eventually becomes a fervent cry, and then seems suddenly suspended in the air for a moment before one final hook. 

What I love most about “Midnight” is a quality present throughout the album: La Havas’ sheer assuredness. The melodies, structure, and lyrics on Blood are confident in my favorite sense of the word: steady, sure, yet still vulnerable. La Havas is not beholden to traditional pop formulas—as she meanders in and out of choruses, I have no doubt she’s calling the shots, making the music she feels.

The next track, “Grow,” is also a love-will-conquer ballad. Perhaps it’s the ultimate one. “Grow” feels massive, expansive. “Got nothing to hide if you get this feeling,” La Havas declares, “Take a piece of the sky if you understand.” 

The lyrics close with: “The future we don't know / Unless we’re together.” It would be hard to come up with a more COVID-appropriate line. Indeed, the future feels especially uncertain right now, and especially bleak. Listening to “Grow,” I feel a genuine sense of reassurance—that as long as I have people in my life who I can count on, I’ll be okay. 

I realize, though, that that sentiment might veer toward romanticization of what has been and will continue to be a devastating era. Nearly two hundred thousand Americans have died. Lower-income people and people of color have been disproportionately harmed at the hands of a racist, selfish, despicable administration. I don’t think romanticization of this pandemic—especially when coming from a place of privilege—is a productive response. But I do think there’s a place for gratitude, especially to the degree that moments of relief can give you strength to do everything you can to improve the world around you. 

Music can provide such relief, often by way of escape. Blood is especially transporting: we’re in Tokyo, we’re walking along white beaches, we’re “floating through the darkest reaches of space.” Escapism is certainly not a cure for one’s political anxieties, but Blood’s escape isn’t a mindless one. Its destination is a rejuvenating, compassionate place. And it seems that progressiveness, at its core, is about loving people—those we know personally and those we don’t.

An album about love, then, can wield a unique power. Blood, rather than indulging in sheer distraction, invokes our most humane, tender instincts. As a listener, I’m reminded that love, primordial like blood itself, can be a constructive force. And in a world rife with violence and injustice, moments of looking inward—to our own warm blood, the empowering kind—can enable us to tackle what’s outside.

Have your own detour-worthy records? Share them with your communities on Grey Matter, a community platform with new ways to discover music and support creators. Learn more and join the community here.

Words

Recommended Reading