With the release of their fourth album, Nabuma Rubberband, Little Dragon has completed a slow but striking transformation. They’re still the playful synth-pop auteurs they established themselves as on their self-titled debut, showing as much penchant for irreverent humor as they do for catchy, elastic rhythms. But with each new album, the Swedish group seems to discover a larger font of power within their songwriting while simultaneously losing interest in sounding merely like a bunch of disaffected trip-hoppers. Nabuma Rubberband’s tracks are explosive and engaged in ways that the soul diversions of Ritual Union weren’t, abandoning the latter’s downtempo cool for muscular bouts of energy. The band has rarely achieved this sense of dynamism; in fact, the only thing in their catalogue that comes close is “Runabout” from 2009’s Machine Dreams.
Unlike Machine Dreams, however, Nabuma Rubberband never lets its energy slip into franticness. Much of that can be credited to the unflappable Yukimi Nagano, whose vocal ability has matured in leaps and bounds since Machine Dreams. Whether soothing or seething, her lithe voice continuously drives the arrangements, almost adding a level of control to the wilder elements. Nagano employs a somber croon in the wistful “Paris,” which pairs squishy synth undulations with the disappointment and resignation of her lyrics. “Paris” is the exact kind of hushed, self-reflective track where, on earlier releases, Little Dragon would go diminutive, but like elsewhere on Nabuma Rubberband, the sense of quiet doesn’t necessarily equate to uncertainty: the neon-lit “Killing Me,” for example, which never breaks from its soft, slinky glide, the devastating blow of its dysfunctional romance delivered in a luminous velvet glove.
But Nabuma Rubberband’s triumph doesn’t stem merely from its creators’ newfound confidence. Rather, the album often serves as a paradigm of expertly managed complexity, each track balancing dozens of moving parts and teeming with melodic percolation. On “Klapp Klapp,” the band is able to synthesize all their creative stamina into one sidewinding melody, laying down a barbed synth line over a crisp, marching percussion and then smearing all of it with a thundering reverb as the track reaches critical mass. “Fallin’ apart, apart, apart,” Nagano sings into oblivion, like some desperate spacefarer peering into a black hole. But in reality, the band has achieved the exact opposite of falling apart, patching up their pleasant but admittedly predictable synth-pop with an appealing volatility. Their music now meticulous and agile, Little Dragon has matched their ambition with execution, and the result is an album that, for all of its exhaustive details and complex rhythms, rarely feels cumbersome.