Music

John Newman: Revolve

Photo: Rhys Frampton

That huge voice -- and those glossy production values -- are in full force on album No. 2.


John Newman

Revolve

Label: Universal / Island
US Release Date: 2015-10-23
UK Release Date: 2015-10-16
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There are two ways to look at Yorkshireman soulster John Newman:

1. Here's a guy who is James Brown to Sam Smith's Little Richard. Both artists have taken influences from all the R&B greats and meshed them with hyper-current production ethos that form somewhat of a forward-thinking soul music sound. You want Otis Redding in the Katy Perry era? You best expect a whole bunch of four-to-the-floor grooves and more processed sounds than a shopping mall's arcade. These guys aren't ruining the genre; they're ushering it into the next era.

Or 2. Can't the dude just get some real drum sounds in there? Like, please? Come on, now. He's got all the right tools, a killer voice, and a clear knack for writing stadium-filling anthems -- can't John Newman just use that power for good? Quit capitalizing on the Calvin Harris-ification of popular music, take a trip to Memphis, spend three weeks and write a record. The result would be inevitably brilliant. And as soul music fans, who wouldn't want to hear that?

Somewhat unfortunately, Newman's latest, Revolve, pays much more attention to No. 1 than it does No. 2. That's not to say it isn't a pretty powerful album with a few moments of greatness buried somewhere beneath. It's just to say … come on, man! Get those hands dirty!

Just imagine what a song like "Come And Get It" would be if it didn't feel so processed? Arguably the album's funkiest (and best) track, it's one of the few here that often bleeds traditional soul, blistering horn section and all. Plus, it's dark. Whereas many of its brothers and sisters feel obnoxiously bright at times, this slithering bass line, coupled with a fabulously placed electric guitar part that you'll miss if you blink, "Come And Get It" has a certain smoky attitude that Newman wears awfully well. Just check the opening two lines: "I have been crazy, but that's just all right, all right/I have been lonely, but that's just all right, all right." Lyrically, it comes from the precise place of pain that makes great R&B music great R&B music.

So, just think of the possibilities if the singer could just find a way to tap into that part of his soul while crafting the insanely huge hooks that appear with staggering regularity here. "Blame", the Harris collaboration, was written for sweaty discotheques and packed arenas all the same. The refrain, alone, is repeated so many times that you'll either wake up humming it or spend the night dreaming about it. It's perfect for crossing Newman over into a more mainstream audience; it just doesn't fit well into the genre this guy should be conquering on a song-by-song basis.

But conquering, he's not. Because instead, he often spends too much time playing in the same epic-piano-build sand box that too many pop stars abuse these days anyway. "All My Heart" echoes the singer's 2013 debut Tribute in adequate (if not overly respectful) ways. The boom of the bass drum still sounds more like a big door shutting in a Marvel movie. The potentially great funk electric guitar is still buried too much in the mix. And Newman's voice is as dominant and impressive as ever. The fact that it eventually settles into a disco-funk feel is a welcome twist that adds a particularly fun layer to the formula this guy has championed.

"Tiring Game" is a lot of the same but bolstered by a Charlie Wilson sighting that paints the beginning with an authenticity this album needs. The tempo picking up ever so slightly as the verse sets in works nicely to help keep the listener's attention. "Something Special" adheres to a similar formula, giving as much (if not more) emphasis to the Build as it does the Groove, despite some pretty great horn pokes throughout the track's body. "Lights Down" takes the same approach, but replaces the keys with a fiery guitar that pounds on the funk so much that it might even make the Godfather of Soul smile somewhere throughout the depths of R&B Heaven.

And then there's "I'm Not Your Man", which proves to be the set's most distinguished track. Accompanied by only a piano throughout the song's first half, it puts Newman's singing chops front and center in a manner he deserves. It's as close to a ballad as this thing gets and it balances everything out wonderfully, especially after the band kicks in and a chorus of millions (or at least so it sounds) backs him up with grandeur and class. You'd like to hear more of this come from his part of the soul world, if only because it announces him as a force even when he needs to be subtle.

Yet subtlety is not the point of Revolve and maybe that's OK. From the spoken-word title track opening the set all the way until "I'm Not Your Man", which pops up toward the end, John Newman goes from 0 to 100 quickly and then he stays there. And then he stays there some more. And then he stays there some more. It's clear he's going for big, epic, world-dominating structures and he pulls it off with ease and expertise. You can't fault him for that, even if you'd rather hear what might happen if he lined up in front of someone as raw and electric as Alabama Shakes.

The results could launch the soul music world into a brand new territory that not even the most thundering bass drum could intimidate. For now, though, we'll have to settle for gloss over guts. And in John Newman's case, that's not so bad.

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