The most significant four minutes of Libraries—the second LP by Raleigh's The Love Language and the album that, thanks to Merge Records, is perhaps poised to break the band to an international audience—come late, as time expires on these 10 tracks. A tape machine clicks on to start "Wilmont," capturing an acoustic guitar that's being checked for tuning. The sound wobbles through analogue hiss, a fitting invocation for frontman Stuart McLamb's grainy, plaintive voice: "You made a foolish offer/ I met you in between/ What doesn't make you softer/ Can only make you mean." As the first verse ends, pristine rays of electric guitar sweep in at a distance, washing up into a great big gloaming. This sort of production wasn't possible when McLamb recorded his debut by himself in a cheap storage space in 2008, but, here, it buoys the lyricist's sentiment of helpless, addled drift.
McLamb's voice is louder but softer in the second verse, ensconced in reverb and a far, feathered harmony. "You want me to haunt you/ but you've started sprouting your wings," he sings, "I could lie to love you/ But my mockingbird's gonna sing." The last two minutes of tension suddenly open like a valve: A circular roll of toms and snare drums bifurcate the closing word, and a chiseled electric takes the lead, diving and rising between the lines of the third verse. This little love-lost number seems now militant, a send-off signed with a scowl. When McLamb returns, he sounds irascible and effete, finally hoping to put this thing to rest. They've tried, he suggests, and it's just not going to work. He delivers the final line—"When I heard you were back in town"—like a last gasp, as if his love life has finally gotten the best of him. But McLamb, who again played most everything on this album, storms ahead, powering the triumphant cascade of keys, guitars, harmonies and drums that scores the getaway with redemption. It's a standard lyrical idea—Hey, love hurts!—that blooms on a grand studio canvas.
Libraries' 10 tracks fall loosely into two categories—the direct, mainline bounces that, given McLamb's self-made debut that first created waves of buzz for The Love Language, listeners knew McLamb could write, and the grand, dynamic numbers like "Wilmont" and "Pedals" that previously seemed beyond his scope. It's a significant binary because each category says something about The Love Language's raised stakes. With a relentless acoustic sway, clap-and-stomp drum line and a chorus that seems like catharsis, lead single "Heart to Tell" proves that the gems from the first album, like "Lalita" and "Sparxxx," weren't one-off flukes. He can write pop songs until the sun comes up, and the tunes can survive elaborate production, too, handled here in saturated, Spector-esque splendor by new Love Language guitarist BJ Burton. The snotty, cavernous "Brittany's Back" and the Peter, Bjorn and John-biting "Horophones" provide similar reaffirmation.
The other category, though, feels like the result of extra collaboration and consideration. McLamb provides the ballast with his hooks, but Burton augments it with flourishes that should change the scope of and conversation about The Love Language. With its spectral tide of guitar noise, its dainty, acoustic waltz of an introduction and lopsided structure, "Blue Angel" feels very much like a band looking to outsmart the stigma of its simple pop charms. On "Pedals," Mark Paulson's grand string charts add a thickness that's never been here before, cutting through any restraint of economy with bombast and bravado.
Since McLamb recorded his debut in a storage shed, there's been an explosion of and acceptance for rock recorded on the cheap in bedrooms and garages. From chillwave to Wavves, though, these songs are often less intriguing than the effect of their shambolic production. McLamb runs in the other direction. No, Libraries isn't perfect: It suffers occasionally from its own density, and McLamb sometimes takes the path of least resistance and highest cliché as a songwriter. But the album shows that he's got command of his songcraft, the gall to make his tunes grandiose, and the wherewithal to see it through. He's come a long way, then, from the guy pulling his life and some demos together in a makeshift studio space between Cary and Chapel Hill. Libraries, faults and all, feels like the real first footprint of a new pop mainstay.