Amid the overtures of 2008, as part of PopMatters’ retrospective mop-up of the previous twelve months’ music, I confidently predicted that it was to be Eugene McGuinness’s year. Here was a young man, I felt, that would go big-with-a-capital-B; bubbly, infectious, and direct enough for the mainstream, yet with a waggishly perceptive lyrical bent to bewitch imaginations, and the disregard for lyrical fashion to make him conspicuous. I even ventured a comparison to Patrick Wolf, perhaps kindled by the cartwheeling keyboards on McGuinness’s irresistible early single “Monsters Under the Bed”.
The fact that I’m writing this review of his debut full-length deep into 2009 (though it did see release a while back, in his native UK) should be enough to tell you that last year was not, after all, to be Eugene’s for the taking. That retrospectively optimistic forecast was made off the back of his Early Learnings, a playful mini-collection in which the learnings in question were less of music and more of the transition from juvenilia to young manhood. That will sound ominously familiar to anyone who has heard an album made in the last five decades, but there was nothing jejune or derivative about it. McGuinness was not troubling himself with cigarettes and alcohol or looking good on the dancefloor, but was instead spotting the petite details of the world around him — the accordion playing busker, the child lost in Tesco, the probably inconsequential but totally evocative signposts of his own burgeoning adulthood. More to the point, he always put these across with warmth, poetic articulacy, and ever-ready twinkle of exuberance.
Fast-forward to the present day and, while I still suspect McGuinness has a healthy career ahead of him, my confidence is tempered somewhat. This self-titled release finds the now 23-year-old Londoner wizened beyond the winning naivety of his Early Learnings, displaying a newfound maturity in terms of lyrical scope and musicianship. His songwriting, it has to be said, cannot always boast the same progress, but then it didn’t really need to — McGuinness’s mini-album already suggested an innate and precocious effortlessness in that department. As far as the opening quartet here goes, that’s still the case. “Rings Around Rosa”, a punchy paean to schoolboy seduction, pairs John Barrett’s thunderous yet nimble drumming to the infectious refrain of “You owe me one / And I know the one that I want”. “Fonz” is a swift, straightforward power-pop number, crackling with a spur-of-the-moment authenticity, and “Moscow State Circus” slides slowly out of its off-kilter equipoise and into a fatalistic sing-along about tumbling down rabbit holes.
The problem is, though, that the longer the album plays, the less visible its creator is. Perhaps it is ironic that this should be a self-titled release, because for all his individual wit and whimsy, McGuinness tries out so many different identities here that he ultimately loses his own. Variety is all well and good, but when the skittery skiffle of “Nightshift” is followed by “Atlas”‘s dreamy honky-tonk and the crooning balladry of “Not So Academic”, it is hard to escape the impression of vaudevillian novelty. That’s not helped by the fact that almost all of the genres McGuinness tips his hat to are creaking with old age, if not long buried, fermenting an air of nostalgia that ill-suits the allusions to underground stations and World Cups, not to mention his own boyish sparkle. There’s also a feeling at times that McGuinness is trying to do too much, too often — “Knock Down Ginger”, for instance, could be a moment of rare, beautiful poignancy, were it not for the slightly cartoonish intonation (honestly, now and then it reminds me just a bitof Kermit the Frog) that occasionally swells up in his voice and robs it of any emotion. On the one hand, it’s admirable that McGuinness refuses to lapse into the overfamiliar comfort zones of the singer-songwriter. One the other, “less is more” is one of those clichés that sometimes actually proves its own truth.
It is easy to be excessively critical of an album like this. Make no mistake, it’s a decent record by anyone’s standards; a very good one by some people’s. But it is not the exceptional record that I had hoped for and that early signs showed McGuinness is capable of. I think, above anything, more ambition is required to couple his evident ability — this is a young man who exudes charm, craftsmanship, and intelligence; one who should be shaping his own sound, not harking back to those of bygone years.