“Do you like soul music, that sweet soul music,” Arthur Conley famously asked/sang back in 1967. Well, thanks to the success of Adele, Amy Winehouse, and such, it seems everybody does—especially back in England. The latest neo-soul artist to reach number one on the UK charts is the 23-year-old, North Yorkshire lad John Newman. In interviews, Newman credits his mother for introducing him to the musical style, but he leads off his debut solo disc with a list of inspirations that includes everyone from Elvis Presley and the Four Seasons to Britney Spears, Jay-Z and the Kings of Leon. Sure, he lists the staples of soul: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, and such, but what’s telling is how inclusive Newman’s list is.
Newman’s no retro snob. Careful listeners might catch sounds that shouldn’t mesh according to purists, but he brings them together with the strength of his lungs. There was a time in America when the differences between Motown and Soul were fraught with meaning. One was the sound of young America and suggested a selling out and watering down of black music for white audiences while the other meant being black, proud, gritty and authentic. History and our ears have taught us that’s not the case. Like most of us, Newman couldn’t care less. He has a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” approach, and in addition borrows from other styles (Is that a Verve lick?) when it fits the material.
The leitmotif here is heartache. He sings about teardrops, being cheated on, mistakes, etc. but with a cathartic yawp. Newman exorcises his pain by exercising his voice. He’s got the chops to carry it off. Even on the relatively quiet production (mostly piano and violin accompaniment) of “Out of My Head”, Newman sings about being broken with a solid vocal performance that suggests hidden powers. This has been what soul music has always been about; the strength to carry on when life brings you down.
When Newman rhymes “try” with “fly”, you feel lifted. And when he sings about “Easy”, it’s in terms of “Whoever said love was easy? / You know they told you wrong / Cause every time you feel it / a piece of you is gone.” It may not be pretty poetry, but Newman makes the lyrics profound through his anthemic rendering of the sentiment. The fact that love hurts has been a musical theme that predates rock ‘n’ roll and can be found in millions of songs, but Newman’s big sound makes it sound fresh again, like pulling a scab off of a wound that never gets a chance to heal. You shouldn’t do it, but oh it hurts so good!
Each of the 15 tracks (this review is of the Deluxe Edition that contains three bonus cuts) features Newman forcefully trying to plug the hole where his heart used to be. “I want to know / can you love me again,” he belts out while a bass saxophone bellows behind him and hand claps mark the rhythm. He may be singing about a lost love specifically, but the universality of trying to gain back the good times of the past rings true in this post-Edenic world. We are all fallen from our more innocent days. At 23 years old, this may be a new revelation to Newman. However, whether one is seven or 70, almost everyone thinks the past was a purer, better place to be. Newman literally pays tribute to yesterday’s music. The quality of this record and Newman’s talents suggests the present isn’t a bad place to be either.