If nothing else, give Jack Peñate this: unlike almost all artists who talk up a new album by speaking of “a change in direction”, he’s actually put his money where his mouth is. The songs on Peñate’s first album Matinée were at best nondescript, at worst risible, and all had the same kind of sound: a post-Libertines and post-Lily Allen flurry of ska-ish guitar, ‘clever’ lyrics, faux lower class accent and a toxic combination of earnestness and ‘irony’ that, along with Peñate’s relentlessly chipper songs and seeming inability to get out of first gear, kind of made you want to punch him in the face. Peñate was exactly the sort of artist who the fickle UK music press tends to champion for a single or two and then viciously turn on, and sure enough that’s exactly what happened.
To have such a one-note, not terribly successful artist say to the NME just as he finished recording that debut that he wanted to get on to his second album as soon as possible so he wouldn’t get trapped into one style of music is surprising, but also usually a dodge. The history of pop music suggests that Everything Is New ought to be another album of his turbo-cod-rockabilly pop, and as thus could be swiftly dismissed. But first single “Tonight’s Today” suggested something genuinely different as soon as the softly pulsing keyboard tones, shuffling beat and sighing backing vocalists all fade in. There’s something hazy and fluttering about “Tonight’s Today” that’s utterly unexpected, and Peñate and producer Paul Epworth have surrounded Peñate’s unexpectedly dextrous and effective rhythm section with perfectly chosen elements. Even Peñate’s guitar is much improved, floating and chiming instead of always just strumming towards oblivion.
And then there’s the lyrics; Peñate is probably never going to be a devastating wordsmith, but “Tonight’s Today” manages to turn a narrative about stumbling out of the club in the morning into a meditation on inevitability and life. The result is a song that’s not just better than you’d expect from Peñate, but is genuinely great no matter who made it. And as it turns out, it’s not a fluke; the brief, compact Everything Is New has eight more songs of similar quality and similarly inventive arrangements. There’s an appealingly broad range to the sounds and influences here, everything from tropicalia to soul to African music to the currently hip Balearic sound, but Peñate has been able to forge all these little elements into a coherent sound, one that’s equally incantatory and joyful, rhythmic and soaring, au courant and out of time.
Lyrically, Everything Is New embraces not just the idea of the new, but of change in general. Not just the title track, but also “Pull My Heart Away”, So Near”, “Give Yourself Away”, and “Let’s All Die” suggest not just romantic stress or general angst but an examination into letting go. Although Peñate never dips into any specific terminology, the elation with which he can sing a song like “Let’s All Die” and the way all the songs here embrace transformation and acceptance of whatever comes places his viewpoint here firmly (if a bit awkwardly – this is still pop music) in the tradition that includes everything from Stoicism to Schopenhauer to Buddhism. Paired with such sunny, rhythmically invigorating music (the drummer here, who wasn’t given much of a chance to shine on Matinée, especially deserves praise), the result is a celebratory album about the fact that we all die eventually, we all leave eventually, we all don’t get what we want. That it’s couched in such swirling, euphoric music is an unexpected masterstroke, one that turns Everything Is New into not just an unexpected comeback but an album that suggests that whatever guise he adopts next Jack Peñate is worth watching.