One minute’s worth of listening to Daniel Powter’s debut (creatively titled Daniel Powter) confirms that this album is, if nothing else, unabashed pop. It is pop in a way that 2006 views pop, in a world post-James Blunt, where the slightly geeky, white-boy pleasant wordplay of John Mayer, Jack Johnson, and Jason Mraz (damn, that’s a lot of J’s) has overwhelmed the terribly shallow, white-boy inane posturing of N-Sync and Backstreet Boys. And the world’s a better place for it.
To be sure, this new pop movement still has its faults. It’s still depressingly formulaic, and it never quite connects on as personal a level as other forms of music; it’s still pop, after all. But by and large, the songwriting is stronger, the artists more authentic (there’s a lot to be said for writing your own songs), and the music just better. Powter, more than anyone else, embodies the new pop wave.
His background follows the talented-bloke-gone-big storyline, where it seems like stardom is less a lucky break and more an expected goal: classically trained in music since childbirth, wrote songs on the side, set out to the city to team up with star producers, releases hit single to conquer airwaves, signs an obscenely large recording contract on the crest of massive hype.
In this case, the hit single is “Bad Day”. The funny thing, though, is that “Bad Day” isn’t anything close to the best song on the album. It’s not bad; it relies on swelling production, one massive hook of a chord change (“Tell me your blue skies turned to gray / Tell me your passion’s gone away”), and a chorus so musically familiar it’s annoying, yet ultimately addictive. In other words, it’s the safest single, most in tune with the zeitgeist. But it pales in comparison to some of the truly strong songs here, and that’s a tribute to Powter’s fine creative abilities.
Powter’s vocal range is on full display throughout the album — softly humming at some parts, watch-those-pipes-go screaming at others. The most obvious comparison that comes to mind is James Blunt. But while he bears a vocal resemblance to Blunt’s half-screeching, half-crooning, Powter is far smoother; he bears none of the rough edges or emotive nakedness that convey so much anguish in Blunt’s songs. Predictably, Powter’s album is much shallower when it comes to emotional substance.
But again, this is pop, and substance be damned! Daniel Powter’s strength lies in musical composition, and there’s enough fresh, inventive instrumentals and instantly hooky choruses to satisfy any listener. While piano, bass, and swelling strings still remain his meat and potatoes, Powter swings between styles with impressive verisimilitude. Most noticeable is the hard-driving highlight “Suspect”, where a tremendously catchy riff, tough percussion, and a belting swagger of a vocal performance combine to create the album’s best song. Meanwhile, “Lie to Me” is a piano glass-breaker that stands in direct contrast to the chill-out ambience of “Give Me Life”, both brilliant songs in their own right.
Unfortunately, Powter doesn’t always take advantage of his talent, and half the album ends up being solidly catchy, but ultimately unremarkable and predictable piano songs (hint: try getting out of major). None of it comes close to leaving an emotional impact. But as a pop album — and keep in mind the definition of “pop” is anything solidly catchy, ultimately unremarkable — it’s a pretty damn impressive collection of rich, sonically diverse tunes.