A lot happened very quickly for synth-pop chanteuse Little Boots: Her 2009 debut Hands generated hit UK singles, a gold album, worldwide tours and topped the BBC Sound of 2009 poll. What followed in the ensuing four-year gap between albums wasn’t quite silence: Victoria Hesketh filled it by DJing, making mixtapes and working with more club-oriented cohorts, such as Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler and Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford. But like her compatriot in ’80s-derived dance-pop La Roux, Boots has distanced herself from her initial hype simply by dragging her heels.
Nocturnes, the long-simmering sophomore effort, isn’t a total break from her buzzy beginnings. For “Broken Record,” Hesketh writes with veteran songsmith Rick Nowels, spinning the same obsessive love angle as her attention-grabbing first single, “Stuck on Repeat.” But here and elsewhere, she downplays the ’80s vibe in favor of more eclectic synth sounds largely overseen by former Mo’ Wax/DFA honcho Tim Goldsworthy. Album opener “Motorway” steers in the urbane direction of indie-dance pioneers Saint Etienne, gradually building up a mood that’s more wistful than amorous. “Confusion” pairs her with ex-Junior Senior member and “Born This Way” co-creator Jeppe Laursen, who helps Boots write a troubled, simple love song that shines over Goldsworthy’s finespun production.
Nocturnes hits its stride halfway, where she digs deeper both lyrically and groove-wise. “Beat Beat” repeats the octave-jumping bass bumps of ’70s disco funk, while both Butler collaborations, the house-y “Every Night I Say a Prayer” and the slow-grinding ballad “All for You,” reveal a spiritual side to Boots previously hidden behind her glossy pop veneer. She doesn’t have a big or distinctive voice, but she does pick the right henchmen, and here she even bares a soul, an aching one that compliments all that’s tidy and efficient elsewhere.