Tom Odell possesses an undeniable and unique power. His voice, at once brittle and bullet-proof, communicates a brand of emotional range that should quite suitably amuse, trouble and stun his audiences. On debut demo, “Another Love”, a song that featured a sparse piano progression that gradually, with help from the singer’s voice, gathered itself to full might, Odell appeared a young talent in full bloom. Even the song’s signature lyric, “All my tears have been used up on another love”, managed to resound as meaningful, not pedantic. Odell was perfect, and projected out as such a massive star, you could almost picture him brushing his luxurious blond hair from his face in front of a throng of adoring on-lookers—and its worth noting that he bears a striking resemblance to the coif of actress Julie Bowen, who most of you would know for playing Adam Sandler’s girlfriend in Happy Gilmore. Yet, despite all this promise and all this talent, Odell’s debut record, Long Way Down represents none of this potential; instead it’s a spacious, meandering mess.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Odell’s best moments are his most clandestine, seemingly secret little songs with definite, if limited, parameters. Lead track, “Grow Old With Me”—which can be forgiven for its “Tiny Dancer” rip-off progression; I would not expressly recommend singing “blue jean baby” over the song’s opening chords—widens its lens just enough to allow the listener room to pass through. The arrangement expands, surely, but it is this initially intimate conceit that secures the pathos of both artist and audience. These represent the only moments of even implied risk. The singer manages to perform this trick exquisitely on “Another Love”. Odell is similarly broken and fragile on “Sense” and “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, each suggesting a fully invested version of the discrete quality of “Grow Old With Me”.
However, Odell seemingly can’t help himself, settling for the grandiose when restraint would have better served both his talent and these songs. The soul-lite backing vocals that Odell debuts on “Grow Old With Me” as the arrangement kicks off the ground, one of his better melodies, becomes a problematic trope. Each arrangement suggesting a similar form: How long will it be before Odell resorts to the backing chorus? Ironically, in most cases, these voices are layers of Odell’s own voice. “I Know”, “Can’t Pretend”, “Til I Lost”, and “Sirens” all suffer from this model. The chorus of voices isn’t in itself a problem, it’s Odell’s seeming unwillingness to expose himself at the keyboard, perhaps his best talent lost in a muddle of vocal tracks. Buried under an impulse that sounds like a Keane joint with too much bombast and without the requisite hooks, Odell is a piano balladeer trying to fit Florence and the Machine-size arrangements into his upright Steinway. He isn’t rewarded for his ambition. Instead, the listener yearns for the bucolic melody of “Another Love”, or any escape from the bawdy arrangements that pepper the rest of the record.
The title track, “Long Way Down” manages to secure and control something of both impulses, the obvious explosiveness of so many of the songs and Odell’s best weapon, his voice. Leaving space for the melody to breathe, the piano is at its most urgent, for the first time, not outclassed by the voices surging from behind the singer. Odell even sounds legitimately moved on the song’s last lyric, “Don’t leave me now.” Unfortunately, this feared departure is the likely outcome for so many fans of piano-driven rock who fell for this singer’s commanding talent and powerful tenor on his demos. Here on Long Way Down, neither of Odell’s gifts—or their intimacy—are given space or time, lost instead in a sea of messy arrangements and a sense that, however fatuous, more must certainly mean better.