“On the streets where I grew up is a stranger I’ve become.” (‘Monitor’) Returning to your birthplace after a significant absence to see your beloved neighbourhood unexpectedly transformed can be a harrowing and eye-opening experience.
Ben Romans-Hopcraft grew up in the South London district of Brixton, an area of the capital that’s known for its multicultural community and could be seen as the Bristol of London with it’s creative street art and contribution to edgy music from Bowie to Grime music. Therefore, it’s long term residents are sceptical and protective over it’s recent gentrification of white middle-class potentially wiping out it’s personality. Romans-Hopcraft left Brixton to study at a University in Nottingham and formed his band Childhood there. Now he’s come back to Brixton and Childhood‘s second album Universal High – follow-up to 2014’s Lacuna – documents the emotion of coming back home to see that things aren’t quite what they used to be.
In the music video – directed by fellow Brixton-resident Georgio Barber – to gorgeous lead single ‘Californian Light’, Childhood walk around the marketplaces of South London greeting local friends. The lyrics of the song sound like he’s pouring his emotion to those townspeople: “I’m leaving a feeling so deep alone and I’m sleeping as I walk the streets of where I call home,” but it’s also on a comment on how even places that seem perfect can be deceptive, using an experience in America involving the police as an example: “The vision was always wrong, like the light that made us run in California.”
Childhood’s decision to pair sentimental words about family (including references to his mother) and growing up with nostalgic seventies funk-soul makes Universal High not only a dramatic shift in style from their hazy psychedelic indie debut but creates an immersive listen because lead vocalist and songwriter Ben Romans-Hopcraft is displaying his childhood memories in both an environmental context and through his musical inspiration. Furthermore, their promotional artwork (spearheaded by designer Grace Wales-Bonner) features candid photos of members of black communities – including on the euphoric cover – and ties everything together to form a well-considered concept about identity.
One similarity between Childhood’s Universal High and predecessor Lacuna is that they both radiate a laid-back aura that can imagine them being played on a smartphone speaker as a couple relax on summer grass but Universal High goes a step further. It’s so smooth and sensual in parts, it could act as an aphrodisiac. Apart from the steady rhythm of the drums, groovy funk-associated keyboards and sparkling bell-like percussion that make it comparable to Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers throughout the majority of the record, it’s the way Romans-Hopcraft croons with a sly attitude as if he’s flirting with the listener that makes it seductive.
The best example is on sexually-charged ‘Nothing Ever Seem Right’ in which he teases: “there’s no other stimulation, there is only my stimulation“. Although it can be seen as trying desperately to impersonate Barry White‘s womanising technique, it fits well in the vibe that Childhood are trying to create on Universal High and completes the album’s character.
There’s even a touch of a french accent to romanticise things further in the bridge of ‘Melody Says’ (imagine the chorus to Enigma‘s ‘Sadeness Part I’). This is one of three tracks along with ‘Too Old For Tears’ and ‘Don’t Have Me Back’ that play with the rules of the 70’s soul mould to show that Childhood can adopt a style without making it rigid.