To follow The Leaf Library over recent years is to have watched them gradually stretch the form within which they work. The Stereolab inspired motorik pop of their early releases was sharp and snappy, but on 2015’s Daylight Versions, the structures became less defined and the use of repetition more expansive, with songs sometimes feeling like they could drift on forever. There’s been something increasingly trancelike about the direction they’ve taken since then, and a kind of woozy, hypnotic feeling informs a good amount of their new LP, The World Is A Bell. There’s a sense about these ten, generally lengthy songs that they don’t really move forward so much as just hover in the air in front of you, drifting into ever more intricate shapes. It’s an unhurried record which invites you to absorb yourself in it, rather than offering easy pop thrills.
However, it would be wrong to say that there’s not a great deal happening here, with much of the album characterised by a restless, nervous energy. Opener “In Doors and Out Through Windows” is constantly shifting around a point, a beautiful tapestry of jazz based patterns that builds up over 7 minutes. Instruments and vocal lines move in and out of the track, with the whole thing feeling like an interlocking mechanism: everything balances perfectly, remove one piece and it could all fall apart. There’s something of Steve Reich about it, and his influence is also felt on the title track, a string based instrumental where a two note theme builds up into a lopsided, jagged but perfectly functioning structure. At times, the energy seems distinctly organic: “Larches Eat Moths” almost feels like a living creature itself, a semi-formless pulsing throb only given direction by Kate Gibson’s floating vocal line.
But while some of these songs move in new directions, others are simply widescreen versions of a more familiar sound. The downbeat melancholy pop of “An Endless”, powered by a tinny drum machine and low key organ, at first feels reminiscent of early tracks like “New Year”, before it heads off into a shimmering, Kraftwerk inspired coda. Elsewhere, the soothing, stately wash of “Patience” has a warmth that recalls the more pastoral moments from the Daylight Versions LP. Lyrically, the concerns are also quite similar: album highlight “Bright Seas” retains the band’s focus on the natural world, it’s gentle, rhythmic bustle mirroring Kate’s descriptions of the movement of the water, the gorgeous melody rising and tumbling with the patterns of the waves. Indeed, the lyrics engage with their environment throughout, offering intoxicating glimpses into the connection between the subject and their surroundings. Impressions can be restricted to a single moment (“the afternoon shadows slip between my fingers, today’s on fire”) or drift off into ever more abstract ideas (“losing nothing, larches eat moths, each one a dream”). Little here seems to matter aside from how this world is experienced.
The album closes with the ambitious 20 minute suite, “Paper Boats On Black Ink Lake”, a downbeat journey through nightfall, which starts off as fairly standard Leaf Library before dissolving into a long ambient section, then closing out with a surprising doom rock finale. Initially, it felt about 10 minutes too long, but once I got used to its rhythms, I developed the patience to enjoy it; the parts that at first seemed almost motionless eventually felt like a journey I wanted to take. Much of The World Is A Bell feels like that: I went into it hoping for a new “Rings Of Saturn” or “The Greater Good” and felt a little bit arsey when I didn’t find one. But after giving it some time, the uncompromising nature of the record begins to feel like a strength and, though a little daunting at first, it quickly becomes an album to get wrapped up in and float away with, an almost endless daydream of vivid imagination and beauty. It isn’t the most obvious of records, but if you’re prepared to adjust your perspective, it all comes into focus perfectly.