The hype surrounding Lianne La Havas’ debut Is Your Love Big Enough set the stage for its disappointment. After a highly praised performance on Later…with Jools Holland and inclusion on BBC’s Sound of 2012 the bar was set high. Then Bon Iver and Stevie Wonder gave her the go ahead nod. The Telegraph ran the headline “Lianna La Havas: the next Adele?” There was only so much higher she could climb.
The Guardian UK quickly eschewed the album stating a “quick glance at the CV of south Londoner Lianne La Havas suggests that she’s being packaged by the music business as the next tasteful artist off the production line.” Several critics described the album as “breezy listening” or as NME’s review concluded “enough dreamlike melodies to sustain your attention rather than zoning out completely, but in reality it’s all just very comfortable.” Music journalists have always hailed the Fiona Apples who rebel against the musical packaging of corporate labels, differentiating themselves with uncompromising artistic credibility. This was Lianne La Havas’ first strike.
Next came the fact that Havas shared her enthusiasm for Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, which critics then used as a comparison (uh, oh). Is Your Love Big Enough does not “push the envelope” like Badu’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). “Tease Me,” “Elusive” or “Everything Everything” are calculated jazzy love songs that blend with generic Tracy Chapman or Norah Jones’ track. Strike two. Unlike Lauryn Hill, her vocals don’t resonant like “To Zion.” Instead, she sounds sharp, unwavering and strong–but flat with emotion. Strike three and like that she was panned.
If you listen to Havas’ live performance in LA you can hear her timidness when she jokes that she needs a drinks to relax. She is only twenty-two. The EP, like her Jools Holland performance, sounds stellar. The live recording of “Tease Me” is totally different than the album. As she sings the hook, her vocals shift from minor to major notes, the dynamicss intensify imbuing a painful uneasiness of heartbreak. Similarly, “Gone” is slowed, the unpolished piano subdued, emphasizing the cadence as she sings lyrics like “how can I fool myself thinking you’re the one.”
This wouldn’t be the first time the record labels tried molding a talented UK soul singer into something “packaged.” Two years ago, SF Critic photographer Victoria Smith was blown away by VV Brown at a private performance in Los Angeles, so much so, that when SXSW rolled around (even though she hadn’t listened to the album) she insisted we interview her. In preparation, Victoria reviewed the album, but was surprised by its polished arrangements that lacked the guttural punk she had heard at in Los Angeles and had her comparing the singer to Grace Jones. During that interview Brown explained “there is a wall between a major and when you’re an artist, of being completely, absolutely, raw, raw, raw” and admitted that she had to “compromise.” Can we fault artists for this?
Is Your Love Big Enough does not showcase Havas at her best, but that’s not because she’s isn’t talented. If you’re going to criticize anyone, blame the producer. These days albums are tools for tours, which is where artists really make their money. I, certainly, won’t miss her performance.