You know what you’re getting with a new Little Dragon album: mid-tempo R&B with a heavy ‘80s influence and a dash of modern dance. If nothing else, the Swedish group know how to strike a groove, and they have found success in the formula for ten years now. Though they’re perhaps more known for some outstanding collaborations, Yukimi Nagano and company have deservedly built a reputation – when their name features at a festival, you know you’re in for a good time.
However, after Ritual Union – arguably the creative highlight of their career – there has been a degree of frustration in regards to the group’s songwriting. 2014’s Nabuma Rubberband showed glimpses of great ambition, but rarely rose to the occasion. It was an enjoyable record that simply failed to leave a lasting impression, and unfortunately, Season High is much of the same.
That’s not to say Little Dragon’s latest record is a complete disappointment, but it is frustratingly safe. Season High starts off well enough, opening with a glaringly obvious yet perfectly enjoyable Prince homage, which sets an exciting pace for the rest of the record to follow. Sadly, the majority of songs fail to match the same standard. There are a good handful of tracks that stagnate after the first few bars, relying too heavily on downtempo beats and quirky synth melodies. “High” is a pleasant but totally aimless song that only exemplifies the leisurely approach to songwriting, and not even a voice as divine as Nagano’s can perk up a track that wallows in its inactivity like “Butterflies” does.
When Little Dragon decide to let loose, there are flashes of excellence. “Sweet” is an obvious highlight, sporting a wonderful 8-bit melody and a typically joyous chorus, but it’s “The Pop Life” that gets closest to joining the likes of “Feather” and “Ritual Union” in becoming a Little Dragon classic. When the band combine in such a lively and dynamic way, it sounds utterly euphoric, and practically celebratory. A Little Dragon rave is hard to top, but when Season High only offers two or three of them, it consequently becomes a difficult sell.
There are worse things than a merely decent Little Dragon album, but frustrations are expected. After all, any long-time fan knows how good they can be. Season High suggests that the group have settled inside their comfort zone. Not only do Little Dragon need to challenge themselves, they need to play to their strengths again. The occasional ghostly lullaby can only pay off when the rest of the album rides high on dynamic, dance-fuelled momentum, and this was displayed flawlessly on their debut back in 2007. It would be harsh to say the band have gone backwards since then, particularly given the quality of Ritual Union, but their recent output certainly hints at a severe lack of risk. As of now, Little Dragon are desperately craving a sense of adventure. Such talent should never settle for mere competence.