Childhood has grown up, moving out of dirty basements and into sleek ‘70s clubs.
Childhood’s 2014 debut, Lacuna, crafted the perfect type of shoegazey psychedelia to be played in basements littered with PBR cans and cigarette butts. It had that sedative quality of the slow sweat that forms between bodies caught in a drowsy sway. On sophomore album, Universal High, the shoegaze stylings remain, but they’re buoyed by explorations of classic soul and R&B. Frontman Ben Romans-Hopcraft lifts the droning whispers of Lacuna into a falsetto vocal reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield. In a lot of ways, Childhood has grown up, moving out of dirty basements and into sleek ‘70s clubs.
Romans-Hopcraft has stated that, in shifting the band’s direction, he began to approach songwriting as a discipline, taking the time to analyze not only what a song does, but also how and why it does it. He owes this musical education and his gravitation toward soul and R&B to his mother, whose radio bursts of Shuggie Otis, Marvin Gaye and the Jones Girls would seep into his bedroom. Rather than merely trying to replicate the songs he heard his mother listen to, he plumbed their depths, trying to find out what soul really means. If Universal High is any evidence, Romans-Hopcraft found his answer.
On album opener, “A.M.D.,” echoes of Childhood’s shoegaze past remain, namely in the dreamy swoops of guitar and bleary-eyed vocals, but they resound in the much deeper past of ‘70s era soul. Slick and sumptuous, the song has a certain swagger, trumpeting the band’s new sound with gusto. Capitalizing on this verve, “Cameo” grinds a fuzzed-out bassline underneath crisp guitar chords and swirling synths. Moving from the sex-drenched whispers of the verses to the sunbursts of falsetto harmonies in the chorus, Romans-Hopcraft vocally jibes with both timbres as the song progresses.
Likely the best track on the record, “Californian Light” grooves with a confident strut, flouncing a funky guitar line over the buoyancy of the song’s organ and in-the-pocket rhythm section. Romans-Hopcraft pitches his falsetto into the rough, careening into the cigar-tinged expanse of classic soul vocality. In as much as the song’s giddiness touts optimism for its titular locale—his vocal phrasing even reminds listeners of Tupac’s “California Love”—it maintains a lyrical melancholia borne out of a sense of disillusionment about living in London. But this lyrical disenchantment hardly sours the tune. Rather, it gives it the perfect amount of bite.
Following such a polished single, the album brightens its sheen as it moves forward. “Too Old for My Tears” swings a shuffle underneath a four-on-the-floor jaunt, while “Don’t Have Me Back” introduces elements of surf rock into the realm of soul in a way that would make Brian Wilson smile. “Nothing Ever Seems Right” acquires the sonic vocabulary of a later decade, as it bends a guitar line around a Talking Heads-like beat, before exploding into the feel-good bluster of an ‘80s pop chorus.
Perhaps the most interesting track on the second half of the album is the song that gives it its name; a song about trying to find a shared euphoria in times of disenchantment, “Universal High” stitches together a collage of sounds. Guitar licks, vocal hooks and synth blips tessellate around a bounding piano, taking the song into increasingly fresh territories every few seconds. It’s as though Romans-Hopcraft threw his entire sonic repertoire at the song’s foundation, allowing only the most hip patterns to stick.
That said, the album does have a few slight stumbles, but even those don’t shake Childhood from their stride. The hooks of “Melody Says” feel dull relative to the sharper vocal lines cast throughout the rest of the album, and “Understanding” feels like a sluggish iteration of the Gap Band’s “Outstanding” that never quite finds its groove. Although album closer, “Monitor,” features flashes of funky slap bass and glittering synths, these parts seem to out-fashion the whole.
Altogether, though, incorporating soul with Romans-Hopcraft’s songwriting precision gave Childhood a new direction, and it resulted in their most impressive release to date. If the growth from Lacuna to Universal High is any indication, we should be excited to see where we’ll find Childhood in the future.