“Have you been good? Have you been bad? Did you behave?” Former British X-Factor runner-up Olly Murs kicks off his latest, Never Been Better, with a ‘bang’ that seems much more exhilarating than his previous effort Right Place Right Time. Right Place Right Time had its share of ‘moments’, but also had imperfections as well. Similarly, Never Been Better eventually gains similar pitfalls — hot for a while, and then loses a bit of luster. One constant for Murs throughout the LP is his voice, which has a boyish, charming, remarkably clear quality. His playful vocal approach is a pro, even when a barrage of styles and sometimes-average material hold back the effort.
“Did You Miss Me?” is easily one of the most fun records, hands down. Energetic and exuberant, the production is slick, filled with its share of dance, soul, and pop cues. The horns add that extra dash of seasoning, further amplifying the ‘feel good’ status. Most of all, Murs sounds invested, much like he does on the equally pleasing “Wrapped Up” featuring Travie McCoy, updated ’70s-inspired cut. Hard not to compare it to Justin Timberlake’s “Take Back the Night”; the disco influence is obvious, not to mention the swagger.
“Beautiful to Me” switches from neo-disco to ’80s-infused pop, slackening the pace ever so slightly without conceding energy. The refrain is the selling point, even if it’s not ‘brand new’ or say the ‘second coming’. It doesn’t reach the same heights as the rock-solid opening duo, but expectations begin to be tempered after the bar is set so high. “Up” featuring Demi Lovato does rank among the more interesting records, seeming to favor Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”, whether intentional or not. The folk-pop sound is yet another contrast, which keeps things fresh, yet doesn’t build cohesiveness. Still if “Up” is “Wake Me Up 2.0” it’s respectable.
“Seasons” returns to pop fare, with a dash of hip-hop thrown in for good measure. No, there are no rhymes ‘busted’, but it’s the overall vibe — cool, ‘dripping in swag’. Murs is “Nothing Without You”, or so he sings on the predictable mid-tempo pop ballad. The lyrics have been sung for years and years via various other songs, Murs performs it soundly, and the production work is lovely. Speaking of hot production work, few do it better than the roaring title track. “Never Been Better” gets bonus points for its infectious driving groove and wailing brass. Like Murs sings, “Everybody cries / But not today, not today.” Of course not with a hot track!
After “Never Been Better”, many songs are less gripping or a variant of the script. “Hope You Got What You Came For” is predictable, while “Why Do I Love You” returns to danceable pop soul with respectable, not necessarily ‘earth-shattering’ results. “Stick With Me” and “Can’t Say No” have some excitability, but don’t ring particularly memorable in the long run. Penultimate number “Tomorrow” is touching, but closer “Let Me In” proves more distinct, more soulful, and better rounded.
All in all, Never Been Better isn’t bad, but nor is it particularly exceptional. Perhaps it’s the lack of exceptionalness that hurts considering the effort that Murs puts in. Murs’ adventurous spirit is appreciated — particularly at the beginning — but after awhile, it seems as if things run into each other. Many songs are decent, but its difficult to find a ‘decent’ one that translates into a surefire, memorable hit. Flawed it is, Never Been Better truly ‘could’ve been better’, but definitely has its moments.