[30 January 2011]
The piano seems to have taken on a new lease of life in the last decade. Blame Coldplay’s merciless ivory-thumping across four albums, blame Daniel Powter’s ubiquitous, sulky-faced hit about defacing subway posters. But like it or lump it, there really has never been a better time for Elton John to dust off his organ. And for those former prep school kids, privileged enough to enjoy a childhood of evening piano lessons—while their peers were out making friends and living life, no doubt—there’s no better time to bring out an album and become a ‘popstar.’
This is not to say piano-balladeer Brendan James is any way posh, or indeed a popstar – as such. What Brendan James, the album, is, for all intents and purposes, is a vehicle for allowing us to get to know Brendan James, the man. Indeed, James is no popstar in the singing gameshow sense. What Brendan James is is a musician in the classic sense. Like Billy Joel, like the aforementioned Elton John—even like a less-knowing Michael Buble, minus the ego and the smug grin, of course. Throughout Brendan James, there are plenty of faultless, glistening piano riffs and shimmering melodies. Yet it’s clearly no mistake that James’s second album is self-titled. Just look at the lyrics: his heart is worn on his sleeve throughout, leaving none of his thoughts or words to question. It’s clear, on every song here, what he’s singing about.
Sadly though, there’s a genuine lack of originality in the lyrics, detracting what this album is really about: Brendan James, the accomplished musician.
So when, at times, the music also seems so-so (take “Stupid for Your Love”‘s slushy, tepid motif, or “Emerald Heart”‘s sub-Ben Folds jauntiness, for example), it all becomes serviceable but forgettable. And then, after a while, it all becomes a little samey too, both in terms of melodies and subject matter. Indeed, you could even imagine some of Brendan James soundtracking the more melancholic moments of ‘90s sitcom Friends. James probably even finished off most of the lyrics in a New York coffee shop over a latte—for a large chunk of the album it certainly sounds like it. On “The Fall”, which starts out sounding like a sure-fire hit but eventually becomes lackluster, he even sings, “I am sitting in the next room, staring in my coffee cup”.
The overdoing of ‘earnest’ and the lack of enthusiasm for originality undoes James’s attempt at writing an honest album, and eventually it all feels a little false and faceless. Even the album cover, tellingly, seems a little half-arsed: revealing no more of the man behind these songs than it does airbrush him into a flawless sex god, intent on melting dampening hearts and the knickers of, respectively, 45-year-old mums and barely-pubescent schoolgirls. It’s a photograph just out-of-focus, taken, judging by the look on his face, shortly after stealing sweets off a baby, and with James subsequently regretting it.
And that could be a metaphor for the whole album, really: Seemed like a good idea at the time, but now all that’s left is empty emotion, for all of us to see.