If you imagine the dance/electro pop scene as one big, glittery club, with Robyn, Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, La Roux, and all the rest dancing to exuberant, forget-the-world tracks inside, Little Boots—aka Victoria Hesketh—is the moody girl you would encounter just outside the exit, smoking a cigarette and quietly brooding in the early morning chill.
Many reviews of her just-released sophomore album, Nocturnes, have noted that she should be inside with the cool kids. Hesketh’s music, while darker than your average club track, is at least as creative and catchy as that made by her more famous peers; and her debut album, Hands, from 2009, came out at just the moment that a new class of ’80s-influenced dance-floor divas were taking the stage. That record did briefly launch her to fame in the U.K. and Europe, where she topped the relevant charts and earned a “Critic’s Choice” nomination at the 2009 BRIT Awards. Her stateside fans were a smaller group (and, anecdotally speaking, all gay). And the momentum didn’t last: Like the ephemeral blips of her signature instrument, the Tenori-on, Boots more-or-less disappeared for the next four years.
Thankfully, Nocturnes proves that the retreat was time well spent. With the help of producer Tim Goldsworthy, Hesketh has taken the cool, shimmering sonic colors she only hinted at in Hands and has expanded them into a coherent and bewitching disco-inflected palette. Nocturnes is, as the name implies, a collection of midnight reveries—some melancholy and searching, others humming with a witching-hour electricity. Hesketh is clearly taking her cue from the popular Romantic form of the same name, made most famous by Frédéric Chopin. But where most classical nocturnes emphasize dreamy tranquility with song-like melodies floating over gently rolling broken chords, Hesketh’s dreams are more modern. Her voice echoes and drifts, sighs and fades over a precisely orchestrated electronic texture that crackles with the anxious, frustrated energy of insomnia.
Hesketh has said that she didn’t want Nocturnes to be another nondescript club album packed with bloodless beats, and it’s not. But it’s still danceable. At a concert in New York last night, the crowd swooned and swayed through Hesketh’s minor-key musings and serpentine verses as she fiddled with the knobs and buttons at her console. Tracks like “Broken Record” and “Every Night I Say a Prayer” filled the hall with unsettling, furrowed bass lines, while the brighter tunes “Crescendo” and “Satellite” felt like bursts of pale moonlight through an otherwise cloudy sky. A medley of “Motorways” (the album’s first single) and “Confusion” displayed Heskseth’s talents as a pop hook-smith. But the best argument for Hesketh’s shady aesthetic was her simple piano performance of “All for You,” a questioning ballad that distills the restless, pre-dawn desire at the heart of the new album. Once all the effects and filters are stripped away, Hesketh has more in common with Chopin than you might expect.
Guardian critic Caroline Sullivan has already declared Nocturnes one of the best “pop records of the year,” and, in terms of quality, she’s right. But will listeners be willing to forgo frothy pop ebullience for a nocturnal sojourn on Little Boots’ bleak and haunted motorways? One can dream…