[21 September 2009]
Despite toiling in obscurity for over three decades in New York City’s music scene, George Usher somehow still comes off like a sincerely nice guy. Blessed with one overly-apologetic falsetto of a voice, Usher could sing death metal lyrics and still sound like the well-mannered choirboy you’d introduce to your grandmother, hire to babysit your kids, or book for a wedding reception gig. It’s an odd choice then that Usher has decided to frame his latest album, Yours and Not Yours, within the context of a soured romantic relationship that, frankly, can’t even have offended the girl it was written about. Not only do feelings of regret and lingering nostalgia strike foreign notes with Usher’s affability, but their thematic stuffing simply doesn’t resonate with this collection of harmlessly polite folk-pop arrangements.
Usher has never been a groundbreaking artist, but, at least on previous solo outings, he’s leaned heavily enough on ‘60s pop influences to flesh out his gentle brand of pop rock with a retro-fitted flair. Here, the jangling, Brydsian guitar work and Beatlesesque melodic sensibility that so defined Usher’s earlier work have been smothered with soft piano arrangements, chiming acoustic chords, syrupy strings, rimshot snares, raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and other nice things sure to offend no one. Which isn’t to say that any of these things are inherently bad; in fact, the sum of their parts—which is essentially easy listening—makes for very agreeable background music on a rainy, overcast afternoon. It’s just that the pangs of love and loss fit don’t fit smoothly into Usher’s sonic template.
Even the most disparaging of Usher’s lyrics ring like pleasant, if not hollow, empty husks of emotion. When Usher whines to his lost love, “I would have done anything to be the one who makes you happy,” without any semblance of real passion, it’s hard to believe that Usher would have really done anything, much less write her an original lyric. From falling leaves, to moonlit rivers, to “the wind that can never tell what it takes away so well,” Usher sugarcoats his songs with more lyrical clichés than a poetry student in an introductory writing class. With each nasally-delivered cliché lamenting his lost love, Usher gets closer and closer to the flaw that ultimately sinks Yours and Not Yours: in attempting to please everyone, he succeeds in identifying with no one in particular.
To be fair, even if Usher’s romantic musings miss the mark, his knack for composing delicate, yet moving vocal arrangements save more than a few songs from wallowing in the muck of self-pity. As album gems “The Stranger Came” and “Comedy of Errors” undoubtedly attest, Usher possesses a true veteran musician’s talent for pop craftsmanship. Subtle countermelodies, divided up between the string section and pedal steel guitars, lend a graceful redemption to even the most lyrically lackluster of the album’s mournful ballads. Unfortunately, Usher can’t seem to translate these moments into his lyrics. Rather than plumb the depths of his failed relationships for anything resembling a redemptive arc, Usher is more interested in convincing his audience that being sensitive to the loss of love is redeeming enough.