It’s easy to see Little Dragon as the “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” of pop groups, destined to make bigger inroads as a featured artist than under their own name. You may have loved the Swedish electronic band without knowing it, as a feature on SBTRKT’s self-titled debut, one of three on Big Boi’s Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors or most notably, on the quintessential Gorillaz track “Empire Ants” from Plastic Beach. This inconsistency can be aggravating, especially for anyone who clicked with Little Dragon’s brand of electropop on 2011’s Ritual Union, a career-best for a band that seemed to be hitting their stride. Nine years and two albums later, however, any fair-weather fans looking to champion the band may have simply jumped ship.

That’s what makes New Me, Same Us such a surprise: for the first time in almost a decade, the band sounds exciting. On its surface, it can be somewhat perplexing: it shouldn’t fit together as well as it does, with just a few tracks that function as proper pop songs. What it lacks in hits it makes up for in atmosphere. While opener “Hold On” is a propulsive, shimmering dance track, the band quickly reveal that this isn’t all they’re after. From then on, they begin to pull back, with singer Yukimi Nagano’s sultry voice as a dynamite constant. But then “Rush” blows it out and adds an echo as a companion for a stripped-back rhythm section, better suited sonically for cocktail parties and swanky bars. By the time you reach the standout “Every Rain,” the peacefully drifting groove can pull you into its embrace without even trying.

Then, it starts to get funky again. “Sadness” plods along in a quiet place and seems like it will end there, but without warning, it turns into a propulsive disco track that manages to facilitate booty-shaking without any prep – truly an outstanding moment. “Are You Feeling Sad?” is damn-near club ready, right down to some goofy pitch-shifted vocals and singalong friendly lyrics, which are precious little more than “No worries, no worries, no/ You’re gonna be alright, uh-huh/ Don’t worry, don’t worry, oh/ Things gonna turn out fine, uh-huh, oh.” Afterwards, though, it returns to pure mood music, with tracks like the one-two punch of “Where You Belong” and “Stay Right Here,” each a glorious ‘90s throwback song so uncanny it sounds like the band unearthed and adapted long-lost Brandy or Faith Evans songs we never got to hear. It doesn’t sound like pastiche, though – these are earnest songs that the band clearly made because these are the sounds they want to hear.

New Me also brings forth the full range of talent within the band. The rhythm section of bassist Fredrik Wallin and drummer Erik Bodin are arguably the stars of the show, capable of elevating any track with their versatility. Nagano has also never sounded better, though she’s also the weakest link: her lyrics, which seem to take a backseat in even the best songs – “Stay Right Here” is an album standout that thrives on her cooed vocals, keyboardist Håkan Wirenstrand’s gently ascending flourishes, and Wallin’s patient, heartbeat-like bassline, but it all loses a little magic when you read the lyrics and find something as saccharine as “Every night, I wanna share with you/ Every moment, I’ll be there for our love/ Safe from the world burning in the fire.” And while “Rush” is a fun track, “Where will I be going when your door is closed?/ I be lying on the porch like a dying rose/ Take me when I’m withered when I’m bent and broke when I’m spent and low” feels too clichéd to have the impact she was likely hoping for. “Rush” is a playful, almost sultry number, though, and her gently gliding voice makes up for how tired it feels.

New Me, Same Us feels like both a triumph and a complete return-to-form for a band who have taken all of the free-spirited energy they’ve put into other people’s work and, at long last, have applied it to their own record. It’s low on forgettable songs (only the so-so “New Fiction” feels inconsequential), packed with career-best showcases of their skills as mood-builders and pop stylists. It just leaves one huge question: what the hell took them so long to make an album like this?

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