For an album almost aggressively marketed as a complete reinvention, it’s both surprising and reassuring to listen to Universal High and still glimpse the Lacuna-era Childhood that we all fell in love with. The same woozy, sunny songwriting still colours the album, simply painted from a broader palette. Where Lacuna maxed out on reverb and guitar pedals, Universal High introduces horns, synths and strings to the band’s catalogue and, when coupled with precision-built pop songs, reaches near-perfection. Frontman Ben Romans-Hopcraft has talked about how his family’s love of soul has bled directly into the album – it’s playful with its influences, but seems to (understandably) hold back. Have no fear, the DNA that made the band’s debut so arresting still runs through the follow-up’s backbone.
However, the album heralds a few intriguing surprises for a band so formerly consistent in its sound. ‘Melody Says’, for example, sees Childhood’s beloved guitars relegated to a cameo role, following Romans-Hopcraft’s newly trained falsetto. Mechanical drumming, liberally applied synths and funky bass solos all point to a Metronomy-indebted paean. Even the lyrics could have been cribbed from a Joe Mount track – titular Melody (music pun – tick), an anonymous female (tick), thinks she’s right (lazily rhymed, though endearingly naff, chorus – tick). Incredibly, Childhood just about manage to make it their own, and twist it into an immense, tightly-paced wonky-pop anthem, complete with spoken French samples. A similar trend continues through the rest of Universal High, with every track belonging to this band and this band alone.
A cynic could suggest that the group have simply followed where the money is, seeing bands like Tame Impala and Metronomy reach high into the charts and even higher on festival line-ups. Yet somehow, the record still manages to bind together as a whole, and not the patchwork of pop pastiche it potentially threatens to be. Whilst historically bands trying on different bands for every song have mostly been unsuccessful, Childhood create an album to admire and ditch such comparisons. The oft-mentioned funk and soul influences provide enough of a twist on the perfect pop songs that they hold the album together – it’s earnest, and respectful. It pays tribute to bands from before but looks to the future.
Less of a reinvention and more just extreme progression, Universal High sees the band reach new glorious heights, supported by triumphant experiments and jubilant instrumentation. It cements Childhood’s position as one of the UK’s most exciting prospect, generously building on Lacuna‘s strong debut and even surpassing some of its best moments. Universal High is exactly that: sunlit euphoria built to share and shower down on all.