“Ain’t got nothing to do with wrong and right / got everything to do with time.” So goes a memorable line from Jamie Woon’s “Lady Luck” which seems now to say something of the London singer-songwriter’s own fortunes. When his previous single “Night Air” was released to some acclaim in September 2010, Woon appeared to have everything going for him: graduated from the BRIT school the year after Amy Winehouse, he had cult dubstep producer Burial for a collaborator and as was felt to be some way ahead of the curve with his nocturnal, seductive take on subtle R&B. By the time his début LP Mirrorwriting was released in the UK in April last year, however, Woon was seen in some circles as having been eclipsed to an extent by the similarly-minded James Blake. The album failed to make the commercial impact that either its critical response or the infiltration of dubstep into the British mainstream might have implied; it seemed that right or wrong, Jamie Woon had seen his moment pass him by.
The fact that the US release of Mirrorwriting comes so long after that moment might make it appear as just a footnote in Woon’s story and indeed, that it may be – however, if nothing else it provides an opportunity to re-assess the record with the passage of time. Even after so long, on this accomplished first album Jamie Woon still sounds every bit like the bright hope among British singer-songwriters he was a year or two ago.
Taken together, the twelve songs of Mirrorwriting comprise a stark, dark night of the soul. During “Night Air” – here appearing as the album’s opening track – Woon makes clear the nocturnal, urban setting which frames all of his work. Made up largely of electronic elements but enriched hugely by the organic sounds of Woon’s own dynamic, soulful voice and occasional acoustic guitar and bass, Mirrorwriting is the world seen from a rain-streaked London train at midnight; Woon himself is the passenger, weighed down with troubled love and opportunities missed and fumbled.
In a style familiar to anyone with experience of London’s public transport, this is a record which depends on and demands a certain degree of patience. Having established a solid base of beautifully crisp beats, Woon builds up his songs meticulously, rushing nothing. In a refreshing break with the prevailing winds of mainstream R&B, he is a real craftsman with his songs, as evidenced especially by the poignant lyrics to “Street” (“Anything can happen in the city / but you can’t sit down”) and the unusual structure of album highlight “Middle”. The subtlety and poise even extend to Woon’s vocals, which smoothly stretch and strain to extract the maximum emotion from each line without ever verging on histrionics.
Undoubtedly Mirrorwriting loses a certain amount of steam in its second half – “Waterfront” is a genuinely disappointing and anticlimactic closer – but this is much more forgiveable in light of the sheer strength and intelligence of much of the rest of the record. Still relevant and still an impressive first salvo from an artist who hopefully can make an impact yet, Mirrorwriting is very much worth the price of entry.