Gorilla Manor: goofy name for a young band hoping to be taken seriously for their full-hearted hooks. There was no guarantee Local Natives’ 2009 album would take off the way that it did, or take off at all for that matter. As is frequently the case with debuts, there remained a sad likelihood that it would end up not as a career-launch, but rather a photo album to be looked back upon fondly. In fact, that’s exactly what it sounded like: documentation of friends holing up and having a little fun while they could.
As a result, Manor was an overwhelmingly positive album. Even in the few instances when the lyrics addressed mortality, it was to challenge it: “I bet when I leave my body for the sky / the wait will be worth it,” sang Kelcey Ayer (“Airplanes”). The glasses-raised choruses include highlights like “Shape Shifter” and “Who Knows Who Cares”, songs that burst open with their immortality complexes in full swing. Three years later, on Hummingbird, the four remaining members of Local Natives link up once again; this time, with a couple concessions about death.
Hummingbird is, in a phrase, pretty damn bleak. Between Ayer’s heartbreaking recollection of his mother’s last breaths on “Colombia” to the man pictured on the cover futilely trying to resist being swept away from solid ground, it’s clear that the Los Angeles harmonizers are no longer brazenly jumping off the deep end together. This album is full of sober surrender.
Be that as it may, Hummingbird’s sonic palette makes Gorilla Manor seem monochromatic and lo-fi by comparison. With no small thanks to The National’s Aaron Dessner, who auspiciously came on board as producer, Hummingbird is jam-packed with textural traces of several key indie touchstones: Veckatimest, Bon Iver, and yes, High Violet.
Granted, that’s automatically cause for concern. It’s one thing for a band to paint in certain contemporary colors, but there is a fine line between renovation and regurgitation. Fortunately, Ayer’s artistry is deeply introspective, and the visceral timbres and textures he uses allows this album to stand on its own. Even though Hummingbird‘s tracks were written more collaboratively this time around, Ayer’s lyrics are much more personal than those on Manor.
Even the band’s signature multi-part harmonies are reduced to give the sound a private aesthetic. On the first two tracks, he repeatedly sings about heading into “places we don’t know” and about a conversation with someone that gets into “outliving the body.” Heavy talk, but not forged. It’s Local Natives’ consistent dependence on real life for creative fuel that eliminates the risk of anything fake.
This brings us to the hallmark track, which is the one Dessner accurately calls the album’s “tent pole song”: “Colombia”. Dedicated to his late mother, Ayer’s words here are wrenching to hear. The music adds dimensions to his lyrics. This song is the corner that Hummingbird waits 34 minutes to turn. Anxiety burns into closure. If Hummingbird wasn’t there already, this momentous sentiment is what defines Local Natives. They’ve come a long way since being ‘the band that opened for Arcade Fire.’ Hummingbird proves that these guys are maturing into a sound that’s both singular and wrenching with severity.