The sudden and unexpected release of “Motorway” some weeks ago — the first major single in roughly three years from the UK’s Little Boots — signaled a striking shift in direction for the now all grown-up Victoria Hesketh’s namesake. Her first album under the Little Boots moniker, titled Hands, was released back in 2009, at the tail end of an impressive run of electro-dance-pop, which reached back to the early-to-mid part of the decade, with acts like The Rapture, The Presets, and VHS or Beta moving on to Digitalism, Cut Copy, Ladyhawke, and Anoraak (the list goes on and on). But while most of these acts — diverse in sound as they were and are — looked primarily to the 1980s for inspiration, Hesketh belonged to a small subset that consciously embraced a generic/mainstream/post-Britney Spears pop sound. As such, Hands projected the sound of a young, albeit talented, twenty-something singer-songwriter mostly interested in making pop music to party to, with little concern for anything else. If anything, then, what “Motorway” was/is indicative of is that Hesketh has left her mall-pop sound far behind and has acquired a kind of (dance) club sophistication along the way, all for the better.
From the gradual, mid-tempo ambient atmospheric drones to both the retro high notes and the shock of house music pianos that make up the intro to “Motorway,” the first track off of her newly self-released album Nocturnes, it becomes apparent that Hesketh is now working at a different register than before, in only a matter of seconds deftly referencing and employing what she wants from a vast history of dance music the stylings of house, vogue, disco, and Italo disco. This is to say nothing of the remainder of the song, which sounds unlike anything Little Boots has released. But, as if to drive that point home, follow-up “Confusion” serves up an even stronger juxtaposition with past material, with its highly stylized, sleekly realized minimalist dance pop, placing emphasis more on an electronic and dance aspect than a necessarily traditionalist pop composition. And then there’s the third track, “Broken Record,” the chorus of which smartly evokes something of 1970s Swedish pop, effectively tying various thematic threads together and relating a sense of the time that has passed since Hesketh’s last album, her development and maturity as an artist, and an acute awareness of the various sounds that dance music has produced in the past. The latter is especially felt on the three-song arc that follows — “Shake,” “Beat Beat,” and “Every Night” — taking from festival-size techno music, after-hours neo-disco funk, and even New Order at their most enamored with American house.
Among other things, Nocturnes may be at least in part about its sound being taken at face value, and that would be enough. While Hands looked only to its present, the songs on Nocturnes seem to look somewhat longingly and nostalgically to various pasts, evoking narratives concerned with time. What’s interesting is that these narratives seem to be evoked or told primarily — though indirectly — through the music itself. It feels at times as if Hesketh is only attempting to relive for herself that bygone era, whether it’s the relatively unadulterated disco of “Beat Beat” that she would have been too young to have experienced firsthand or the Pet-Shop-Boys-meets-Kate-Bush-inspired “All For You.”
As it stands, however, in the context of the [post]-indie explosion of electro pop that precedes it by only a few years, Nocturnes is also representative of where many of those acts have ventured in honing and developing their craft, so to speak, if they haven’t seemingly altogether disappeared. If that original 1980s and retro-influenced run ultimately got bogged down, becoming a mixed bag of sorts simply by virtue of the veritable profusion of like-minded acts caught in the zeitgeist, Nocturnes points the way out, with Hesketh having demonstrated not only the willingness and the ability to grow and develop, but also to retain a sense of her individuality and a keenness for what may set Little Boots apart from the rest.