Katie Melua always had an air of The Stepford Wives about her. Inoffensive, house trained, porcelain pretty, scandal free. Her three polite albums sailed through the night scooping up squillions of sales despite nobody actually remembering any of the tunes. The only thing witnesses recalled when asked were Melua’s chucklesome lyrics—prime offenders being “If you were a piece of wood / I’d nail you to the floor” and “You set me free, as if you’d taken me / Halfway up the Hindu Kush”. Fnar, fnar.
BUT SUDDENLY! In an act of admirable teenage rebellion (well, aged 25), she’s flipped the script and fired a distress signal to reclusive genius Sir William of Orbit. The boffin behind Madge’s lifesaving Ray of Light!? Hell this guy made All Saints listenable!! An escape plan was hatched. In no time, Melua was seen scaling the city walls and bustin’ free from her owner, Mike “Don’t Mention The Wombles” Batt, AKA Battman. The House is the closest pop has seen to a Logan’s Run-style breakout since “When Kylie Met Hutch”. Run Girl! Run! Don’t Look Back!
Well OK, it’s not that exciting, but it’s sometimes darn close. We’re not talking Metal Machine Music, Achtung Baby, or Congratulations-level makeovers, but there are slithers of sound that deserve a doff of thy cap. The House begins with the delicately threatening “I’d Love to Kill You” (ooh, I told you, girl gone wild!) which transfixes like a Siren’s curse. “I’d love to kill you by a stream / Where no one can hear my baby scream”. Blimey, our lil’ girl’s all grown up. Spin in a few feral “ooooh’s” and you’ve got, zoiks, near Buckley-esque chills. This swiftly bows to recent single “The Flood”, surely one of the most WTF? comebacks in recent pop memory. It echoes not only Madge’s stunning, shivering “Frozen”, but also Queen’s crawling, operatic “Innuendo” as it swings seamlessly from Arabian funeral march to death disco and back again. In other words, “blimey” and “crikey”.
The House sadly freefalls somewhat after peaking so early. “A Happy Place” is a hopskotch skipping dandy of riddles and rhymes under a pantomime sky, whilst “A Moment of Madness” is playtime Sally Bowles’s “I’m Mad Me” tap dancin’ with legs akimbo. Tastefully done, but unconvincing despite the latter’s kinky aside “In your drawer / There’s some leather in there”. “The One I Love Is Gone” is funeral pace delta blues, but via the stage school door, and “Plague of Love” is just rubbish, a swinging ‘60s pastiche with sub-Bond theme delusions of grandeur. Despite Melua’s angelic voice, a good section of The House should be, well, condemned.
But when it shines, it dazzles. Sometimes her wacky imagery just works. “Red Balloons” paints a sea of lonely hearts floating in balloons across an ocean of sky: “I put my heart in a red balloon / But I let it go too soon”. It’s carried aloft by wistful acoustic guitars, sweeping drum brushes, and that tender voice. “The sky is full of red balloons / Red balloons are full of broken hearts”. The romantic in me declares victory! Ditto the brooding, passionate “No Fear of Heights”, with its heroic mantra “No fear of the fall”. It’s an acoustic cousin of “Iris” by Goo Goo Dolls and “All I Want Is You” by U2 and is simply divine.
As in the beginning, a pair of knockouts bookend our stay at The House. “Twisted” is worthy of El Perro Del Mar in its marriage of pitter-patter pop and burning sensuality: “Like the roots of a tree / You got into me” and “This beast inside is counting to ten / We’re all alone / We’re near my home”. Steamy windows, love? Finally there’s the icy, atmospheric title track where “Flowers in the wallpaper bloom”. It’s a midnight tour through Chez Melua, wondering “Is somebody watching me? You really shouldn’t see”. “Look away now, Look away now”, she whispers. It trails vanishing phantoms in the night sky and is a haunting fader .
It wouldn’t be Melua though without some lyrical levity (‘fess up folks you love it) and The House delivers. The whole concept of “Tiny Alien” is genius. A tale of a stranded E.T. tryin’ to make an honest wage in the Big City, “You’ve just got to take the pressure” advises Melua. “I won’t shoot you down / With my science, and reliance”. It’s hard not to imagine the video, probably starring Warwick Davis, painted green, trying to fix the photocopier. I do feel bad giggling, though, as the tune is quite lovely. Naughty music critic! However I’ll say nothing about the tumbling clutter of “God on the Drums, Devil on the Bass”, I’ll just leave you with that title. (Some towering skyscraper horns are buried in the mix, though).
The House is one small step for mankind, one giant leap for Katie Melua. At least half of the record is fragrantly classy and, occasionally, even beautiful. Despite lacking William Orbit’s trademark sound, it’s got sparks of invention and wonder. My only hope is that our escapee evades recapture from Battman mediocrity and remains underground and wombling free. Maybe Melua has decided to be a runner. Maybe like Stepford rebel Joanna Eberhart, she’s defiantly concluded “I guess I want to be remembered”.