[6 February 2011]
“I’m sorry,” James Blunt seems to say, pleading with the millions who’ve turned their backs. “I didn’t know. I thought you wanted more. I thought you wanted me to grow, to mature, to be inspired by something other than my poor track record at relationships.
“I thought you wanted art, when you just wanted a melody.”
Rarely has an opening track been this much of an apology. “Stay the Night” is an upbeat little song sung from a boy to a girl that ceremoniously drops every pretense that weighed down James Blunt’s second album. “If this is what we’ve got / Then what we’ve got is gold,” he sings to a quickly-strummed guitar and a beat that moves quicker and lighter than anything he’s ever released.
The trajectory of Blunt’s career projection to this point isn’t a fall off a cliff so much as a rocket pointed straight down. Debuting with a pop song as perfectly crafted and insufferably sincere as “You’re Beautiful” didn’t really offer many opportunities for improvement, though the album that surrounded it was a perfectly competent collection of pop songs. Back to Bedlam had hooks that lasted for days anchoring songs like “High” and “Goodbye My Lover”, songs that feature Blunt’s “I” and a constantly-unnamed “you”, ambiguous enough to apply to just about any joy or crisis his listeners might be feeling. Blunt managed to make an album that told us almost nothing about him feel deeply personal through humble, sometimes sparse production and a voice that constantly sounded as though it was on the edge of breaking.
That he would follow it with an album like All the Lost Souls was almost inevitable; retreading the ground he wore out on his first album would have been a critical disaster, after all. So he populated his songs with names and dates, touching on the subjects of addiction and age, all with a production touch that could nicely be called heavy-handed. Blunt’s sincerity and humility was replaced with a self-assuredness that doesn’t mesh with the still-almost-broken voice. His audience didn’t buy it. The critics didn’t buy it. All the Lost Souls went quickly and quietly.
His star has fallen so far that Europe got Some Kind of Trouble nearly two months before America. Nobody in America really noticed, either, until “Stay the Night” wormed its way into an ABC network television promo, and millions of viewers remembered who he was.
“Stay the Night” a perfect pick as a first single, because it’s just a song. It’s a pretty melody with pretty lyrics and pretty guitars, an entirely inoffensive and effortlessly happy thing that’s almost impossible to resist. It’s the perfect song to re-introduce Blunt to the masses, because it harnesses the puppydog sincerity and limited scope of Back to Bedlam while managing to not actually sound anything like that album. It needed to sound like a new beginning, and it does.
The most frustrating thing about the rest of Some Kind of Trouble, then, is this: If you look at it in a certain light, it’s an ambitious piece of work. It’s the sound of an artist working every single influence and style that ever inspired him into a series of three-minute pop songs. What this leads to, however, is a game of “spot the inspiration”, much of which reduces to “song X sounds like artist Y”. “Dangerous” sounds like Hall & Oates. “No Tears” sounds like Elton John. “I’ll Be Your Man” could be John Cougar Mellencamp. Maybe such similarities could be chalked up to homage, to an artist wanting to pay tribute to those that made him such a success, but these songs are prototypical of their influences to the point of caricature. It gets worse when those influences are combined—putting a rave-synth breakdown in the middle of the Fleetwood Mac-inspired “Superstar” was a terrible idea, and inserting the lyric “remind me of childhood memories” into “These Are the Words” while a Slash-inspired guitar solos in the background only makes the listener wish a Guns ‘n’ Roses album was playing.
Aside from the brilliant departure offered by the album’s opener, Blunt has lost all concept of how to sound like himself. His voice is the same, but it’s singing songs that don’t sound like his songs.
Whatever goodwill is left by the time the final track begins is utterly squandered by “Turn Me On”. The bassline is sped-up “Come Together”, but the lyrics are all “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”, complete with Blunt offering such come-ons as “Underwater, with someone’s daughter / Gonna make you a dirty woman”. The intent is obviously to portray Blunt as a sexual being; the result is creepy and borderline misogynist. “You know you wanna turn me on”, he sings over and over, before the song mercifully ends after a scant two-and-a-half minutes.
In essence, Blunt has bookended his album with two songs that happen to feature the same message, even as the one that closes the album completely rescinds the apology offered by the one that opens it.
“I tried,” he seems to say, “but I’m not that guy anymore. I’m ridiculously wealthy. I own a villa in Ibiza. I go to parties where I brush shoulders with supermodels. This is my craft, my art, and if you don’t like it, well, bugger off.”
It’s good advice.