On her debut album, Mabel McVey confirms her knack for upbeat, dancehall-tinged R&B. Unfortunately, it relies on trends everyone's heard before, including Mabel herself.
2 August 2019
For an album to be considered cohesive, all its tracks need not sound the same. Albums from A Night at the Opera to Broke With Expensive Taste feature a wide range of sounds yet still contain threads of continuity between their tracks to form a diverse yet still interconnected project. This sort of thing sounds like it should go without saying.
An artist like Mabel McVey, as well as her debut record High Expectations, would do well to take heed to this. Ever since "Finders Keepers" emerged as a hit back in 2017, Mabel's biggest singles are powered by that particular style of upbeat dancehall. The album's preceding singles "Don't Call Me Up" and "Mad Love" feature bouncing rhythms and shimmering synths, aesthetic choices that litter the rest of the album.
To McVey's credit, she sounds best slinging a nimble lyric over these types of tracks. Though upbeat, such songs typically express her disappointment and frustration at her partners failing to live up to standards. Invitations are delivered as challenges: "And I see that you have the potential / 'Cause no others have ever been successful," a backhanded compliment she gives little time to react to. "Bad Behaviour" sets her sprinting off from the start, and she rarely takes time for rest.
That said, much of High Expectations fails to ascend to any newfound heights. McVey's reliance on buoyant, dancehall rhythms only recalls the strength of previous singles such as "Finders Keepers". The album's dated clichés only further dim its glow. Naming your song "FML" in 2009 would show foresight, but its choice here is hollow at best, cringe-y at worst. Meanwhile, other songs like "Don't Call Me Up" or "Ring Ring" might resonate a little more if the entities making phone calls weren't mostly bots.
When things slow down, the album really loses its juice. Where McVey hits her stride in faster tempos, she struggles to adapt to lower ones gracefully. On one of the few mid-tempo tracks, "We Don't Say", she finds some success in a groovy, echoing production and a coating of Auto-Tune on the chorus. However, "Trouble" finds itself stuck on the same lyrical platitudes, ones sung over a beat too safe to be taking any sort of risk. To add insult to injury, the most interesting downtempo songs serve as introductions or interludes -- "Stckhlm Syndome" -- cut far too short.
On the introduction of High Expectations, McVey admits she considers her own visions of her music and album as impossible. Her fear of flying near the sun is admittedly a bold admission to lead a body of work with, especially the first. Yet rather than free of constraints, she sounds set in her ways, reluctant to break free of the trends which made her and so many other acts of today famous. Though sung in a beautiful, agile voice, the album's contents lack any innovation that truly set them apart, even amongst themselves.
And since the outro ends on the same melodies which introduce the album, the listener is left wondering if they'd accidentally listened to the same song for 45 minutes.