Local Natives made their initial splash at the 2009 iteration of South By Southwest, playing nine separate shows during the festival’s run. Their live show drew comparisons to Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire – stalwarts of the independent music scene – and high praise for a band that had been in operation for such a short period of time. The then-fivepiece didn’t immediately release an album to accommodate the mounting affection; instead, their debut, Gorilla Manor, was released nearly a year later, comprised of updated versions of songs that had been kicking around the blogs in the previous year. And while it showcased an eager, talented band, it also had the trappings of an album that lacked cohesion and often felt fused together. The band’s joy, however, was never in question. This was a band that was clearly happy to be creating, and lucky to be able to share their creation with a wider audience.
With that in mind, Hummingbird, which was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, is much darker in theme and tone than Gorilla Manor was; it’s apparent from the outset of the album’s first song – “You & I” – that the Local Natives with which their audience had become familiar is no longer as festive. There’s a certain gravity to the newly-minted foursome; gone is the naiveté of before, the levity of their debut replaced with a sort of sobriety. It’s a by-product of any aging process – the increased maturity that’s evident here.
The intervening years between Gorilla Manor and Hummingbird, while they’ve propelled the band to a much larger audience, haven’t, based on the lyrics here, been wholly kind to the band. They parted ways with their bassist in 2011. Kelcey lost his mother, Patricia, to whom the record is dedicated. These life changes are reflected here, and the resulting album is a visceral nod to them, and to the band being forced to ask the sort of questions that don’t have easy answers.
It’s that gravitas that gives Hummingbird its punch. A promotional photograph of the band for the album shows them chest-high in the ocean; it’s an appropriate vantage point from which to take the new album in. Hummingbird is an immersive experience. There’s a sense that at anytime it could overtake the listener in the same manner it did the band.
Though thematically the album is heavier, musically, the band hasn’t missed a step. Though they’re somber, the songs are still gorgeously arranged and adeptly performed. The harmonies that initially endeared everyone to Local Natives haven’t been replaced, but there are times on Hummingbird (see: “Three Months”) where Kelcey’s vocals are front and center, and those are the most poignant of the album.
After a debut that was strong but could at times feel forced, for Local Natives to return with such a cohesive, exquisite sophomore release is a large and important step forward.