Lala Lala were the first band I saw after I moved to Chicago in 2015. I was 18 and nervous, camouflaged under the low ceiling of Humboldt Park basement venue Pinky Swear in what I hoped was the universal cool-kid uniform, right down to the scuffed low-top Dr. Martens and can of PBR. In the abrasive guitar and intricately coded autobiographical lyrics of Lala Lala front woman Lillie West, I found a pocket of the Chicago underground rock scene that I could see myself in—I’ve been a fan ever since.
The band will probably never lose their affection for basement shows, but these days they can play legitimate clubs too—in fact they’re headlining the Empty Bottle on Friday, September 28, to celebrate the release of their second full-length, The Lamb, via Sub Pop offshoot Hardly Art.
Lala Lala’s move to aboveground venues mirrors the leap in production quality between The Lamb and their first album, 2016’s Sleepyhead, which is essentially a live recording: hazy and distorted, it’s the sound of a band in a room, with little channel separation but a lot of immediacy. The Lamb is cleaner, with more space to let listeners think, and even as the arrangements have become more complex (the band grew from three members to four), the instruments feel less crowded together.
This newfound clarity and intricacy also owes something to the fact that West created The Lamb in a different headspace than Sleepyhead. As of July, she’s been sober for two years. “For me, being sober is being fully conscious, and this record is the first thing I’ve made while paying attention, while being fully present,” she says. “Sleepyhead to me feels incidental.” This is audible in the recordings too—every detail on the new album feels intentional.
The title of The Lamb also refers to West’s sobriety, and to the renewal and disorientation that comes from such an abrupt change of lifestyle. “The first year is just really confusing,” she says. “While this was being written, I was relearning how to live my life. That’s why it’s called The Lamb—it’s like baby sheep learning how to live again, or learning how to walk for the first time.”
West’s lyrics on Sleepyhead are relatively light—partying, dreams, friends, family—but on The Lamb she’s processing a nightmarish year marred by a home invasion and the death of a close friend, Trey Gruber of local band Parent. While she was writing it, she sank into paranoia and rarely left her house. She replayed her past interactions in her head, looking for things she might’ve done wrong. “A lot of the record is about feeling guilty,” she says. “The idea of the ‘right thing’ and whether it exists, reassessing situations and thinking, ‘Was I kind in this situation? Was this the productive thing?'”
The Lamb is a sad album, but not a sad-sounding album. “When You Die” is catchy and light, even though its chorus carries the poignant helplessness of not knowing who you’ll lose next—”Keep my friends safe night and day / Keep my friends safe now and always,” West pleads, knowing her prayer won’t be answered. On “The Flu,” she sings about various destructive and self-destructive impulses—holding back a loved one, trashing her car—over swaying, beachy guitar.
West honors the album’s complex emotions by leaving them at least partly unexplained: she gives us clues to a riddle she has no intention of answering, writing lyrics whose internal references seem like cryptic nonsense to everybody but her. “It feels like telling a secret in public,” she says. “I like to make puzzles in lyrics. It’s like a private joke with myself.”
The Lamb is both raw and guarded, drawing on a listener’s empathy but stopping short of sharing everything. It makes you want to listen through it repeatedly, trying to put together the pieces. Here’s my prediction: Lala Lala is going to blow up after this album comes out, and it’s already overdue. If you want to be able to say you saw them play back when, you’re running out of time.