There may be no type of LP more inherently contentious to audiophiles than solo albums by erstwhile members of beloved acts, especially if said act has not already parted ways. The very choice to craft an album without the sanctioned imprimatur of the known quantity smacks of rebellion, dissatisfaction, or at the very least, of artistic wanderlust. Depending on the nature of the original collaborative project, making an album outside of its confines can invite doubt in the viability of said project. What is it about your original band, a devil’s advocate may conjecture, that precludes this particular portion of your vision from being run through its musical machinery?
To the extent that an argument can be made in favor of such solo albums, its linchpin would be that whatever the artist chooses to express on his or her breakaway effort, it should be clearly distinct from the established discourse of his or her collaborative work. “Making it new” tends to be the fundamental tenet of any product of creative integrity (and we can argue over whether it should be on another fine day), but notable solo work requires additional newness, the more radical or tangential, the better. This is quite evident in indie rock, where it seems that every buzz band of wider appeal includes members who want to make country albums or indulge in experimental electronic side projects.
In the case of the British mindie combo Gomez, the group’s chosen aesthetic has never really shown a predilection to shut out tangential ideas; electronic freak-outs are able to coexist with sensitive acoustic balladry, sometimes in the space of a single track. Despite this, both halves of Gomez’s main songwriting duo have now released solo records. Ian Ball’s Who Goes There came out in 2007, and indeed his charming collection of indulgent, rambling pop songs constituted a subtle but definite departure from the American-derived style of his main band.
And now follows Shapes & Shadows, the decidedly low-key solo debut from Ben Ottewell, the bronze-voiced McCartney to Ball’s fickle Lennon (Gomez’s third writer/vocalist Tom Gray makes for a more gregarious and less thoughtful George Harrison, but I won’t do the band’s rhythm section the disservice of appointing them the Ringo proxies). Although Ottewell’s formidable pipes are Gomez’s signature attraction, the Eiffel Tower of their City of Light, his songs have never been quite as indelible as the voice that sings them.
Shapes & Shadows reconfirms this impression at some point on each of its nine tracks. Indeed, the record doesn’t really pass the muster of the solo-album criteria cited above. Reflective as they are, any of these songs could be folded seamlessly into the breast of Ottewell’s original band; any dedicated Gomez fan ought to count Ottewell-sung ballads like “Free to Run”, “There It Was” or “Bone Tired” among their high water marks in the band’s oeuvre, and any of those tracks would fit into the awestruck aesthetic of this album. If Ian Ball’s earlier solo effort elaborated in impressive detail on ideas merely hinted at on proper Gomez records, Shapes & Shadows shows us that Ben Ottewell is so thoroughly immersed in Gomez that he cannot conceive of anything beyond it, try as he might.
The record does have its pleasures, and they are revealed like so many hazy recollections of dormant glory. The mildly audacious incorporation of the words “corpus callosum” into the otherwise unsurprising “Lightbulbs” gives the song a curious quality. “Blackbird” may not live up to its seminal namesake, but Ottewell and his accompanying chamber strings take the opportunity to conjure some bluesy rhythm alongside the ever-present folky ethereal-ity. And “Chicago” is the beating, shining heart of this foggy record, a lovely and poetic vision that glows with warmth and regret.
But even these occasional moments of flickering light can’t save Shapes & Shadows from the dank gullies of pretty mediocrity. It left me wondering why Ottewell felt compelled to make it rather than merely preserve its purest essences and adapt them to a more Gomez-able form. But even this wondering had no verve to it. There’s precious little worth caring passionately about here. It’s rather far from being a poor album, but there’s no real argument to be made for the existence of as a standalone work. For that, a bit more tangential newness should be expected, but Ben Ottewell is disinclined to provide it.