Greg Laswell’s fourth full-length album, Landline, begins with “Come Back Down”, a super-pop duet with Sara Bareilles in which he proclaims, “All of your wallowing is unbecoming / You’ve gotta take it on your own from here / It’s getting pathetic and I’m almost done here”. It is condescending and fairly self-righteous, but not entirely untrue. I’m sure many of us have experienced moments where we indulge in self-pity or, conversely, witness those closest to us indulge in self-pity that results in self-induced stagnation. I’m sure in these instances, we reach a point of exhaustion where we want to slap the person awake, to help them get a handle on themselves. However, this type of tactic usually only works in the movies — and it’s still condescending and self-righteous. This tension of understanding something as relatively true and yet tactless in its delivery permeates throughout Laswell’s most recent effort. So much so that the listener struggles between self-awareness over being called-out, and incredulity over being lectured to. It makes a fairly accessible album, well, less accessible.
Greg Laswell can be difficult to get behind at times, and this is ever-present throughout Landline. The production is typically safe, with the occasional nuance and edge thrown in to differentiate him from other less interesting solo “sensitive” male artists. However, everything is so pristine and perfect on almost all of his recordings that it’s difficult to discern whether we’re hearing the human Greg Laswell or some pitch-perfect computerized imposter. The autotune is so glaring that nary a wrong note is heard anywhere — God forbid a wrong note may indicate that Greg is in fact fallible and thus endearing. His vocals, and much of the production, instead sounds cold and calculated as if poor Laswell is too ashamed to show his humanity. Ironic considering much of the content of Landline involves some rather poignant observations about humanity and connectedness. And although most of this would tend to gear towards a fairly bad album, much of Landline is fairly enjoyable, but perhaps not for the reasons Laswell intends.
Laswell has recruited four fairly successful female solo artists this time around, which does result in some of the albums highlights. However, this “trick” ultimately blows up in Laswell’s face as these beautiful harmonic voices only serve to amplify Laswell’s monotony on tracks where they are not featured. It puts the guy in a tough spot. On the one hand, when Barielles comes in singing an infectious harmonic melody on “Come Back Down”, you can’t help but love the tune, but the minute the second track, “I Might Drop By”, kicks in without a sensitive female artist to back him up, you miss the enigmatic touch of the previous track. “Back to You” features a complementary female presence, but isn’t as affecting as “Come Back Down” or the wonderfully upbeat “Dragging You Around” (featuring Sia). A nice balance — Laswell recruits Sia for her propensity to sound less like a singer and more like a musical instrument come to life. It’s an uplifting turn from the more maudlin tracks on the album — of which there are plenty. However, this is not to suggest that all the maudlin tracks are too melancholy to enjoy. In fact, when Laswell gets it right, it can be the maudlin tracks that endear him most from his computerized tone.
One such tune is brilliant album closer “Landline” (with Ingrid Michealson), where Laswell sings about the necessity to stay connected in the face of isolation. It’s a simple sentiment, beautifully written and endearing despite its pitch-perfect production, especially where it reaches its emotional denouement, Michaelson offering her harmonious “All I needed would never be enough for me”. I’m sure you’ll hear it soon on a very special episode of Grey’s Anatomy, or Private Practice. And therein lies another complication with Laswell’s style: He struggles so very hard to sound so much like those that cater to the sappy “easy listening” guy-and-a-guitar Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack crowd that many times you have to strain to hear precisely how Laswell differs from artist’s such as Patrick Watson or John Mayer — because he is different, despite how much he tries to make himself the same. It’s a shame sometimes to hear an enjoyable and soulful singer rest on clichéd tropes of sensitive lite-pop/rock.
Ultimately, Landline is a small step forward for Laswell that won’t result in super-stardom, but may help him tack on to a television soundtrack that could give him bigger exposure. It’s unfortunate to see a superbly talented singer/songwriter who is an affecting lyricist to boot try his hardest to sound like so many others. Luckily, his allure shines through, regardless of how much he tries to squash it. Laswell has the capacity to break through and produce a wonderful piece of work. He just hasn’t done that yet.