The term “lifestyle music” is phrase in the music critic’s arsenal that is generally used against albums that don’t aspire to be anything more than a soundtrack to the lives of the listener. However, more often than not critics fail to realize that even celebrated and picked over artists like the Arcade Fire are certainly their own brand of “lifestyle music”. Moreover, it raises the fundamental question — does all art need to serve a higher purpose other than to entertain or reach a listener? There are arguments for both sides and I’m certainly not going to attempt to settle the debate here. And while all this may seem like the beginning of an apologist’s review of James Chapman’s (AKA Maps) debut, there is nothing really to feel sorry for. Built for late night listening, and wearing its homemade stitches proudly, We Can Create is a strong entry into the growing “widescreen sound” oeuvre.
The most astonishing thing about We Can Create is that it was created without the aid of computers. Spliced together on a sixteen track, Chapman ends up creating an album that sounds like the love child of M83, Air, and even Stars. Ambitious and moody settings lay out a framework for his own delicate and vulnerable vocals to go down easy. And indeed, this is an easily digestible album. While Chapman may be playing the same game as the aforementioned artists, he is certainly not yet as accomplished or adventurous. Yet, during the album’s best moments it is every bit as satisfying as Talkie Walkie or Before The Dawn Heals Us.
Leadoff track and surefire single/soundtrack hit “So Low, So High” has every bit the sweep and scope of something written by Anthony Gonzalez. Gorgeously punctuated by horns, it sets a high bar that Chapman hits for most of the disc. The subtly shifting and elegant “Elouise” and red-eye stuttering of “It Will Find You” are indications that Chapman is able to add variety to his standard palette. And while the instrumentation on the disc — aside from guitars, drums and percussion — remains a secret, the addition of strings and brass throughout add a mature edge. And while the disc fizzles by the end with a couple of too-long, same sounding tracks, by this point you are too enraptured in the overall reach of the disc to really care.
However, if there is any drawback to the disc, it is definitely in the lyrical department. Unwisely choosing the print the lyrics in the CD booklet, it would be best advised to keep it closed or throw it out altogether. While Chapman may know how to ride the faders, his vague verses and painful rhymes are best left unknown. Like some kind of evil hybrid of James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” and Coldplay’s “Yellow” the lyrics here are either bafflingly indirect or stomach churningly sincere. The mix by Ken Thomas (Sigur Ros) wisely keeps Chapman’s voice from getting too far ahead of the music and best treats it as another element riding alongside the gentle wash of the other instruments.
Recently short-listed for the Mercury Music Prize, there is no doubt that Chapman’s disc deserves the accolades it gets. Yes, it’s “lifestyle music”. I wouldn’t be surprised if some adverts or movie trailers pick up on some of his music either. And I expect him to be lined up for a LateNightTales compilation as well. But there is also a genuine, undeniably heart-stirring element to Chapman’s work — one that cannot be taken away with a meaningless two-word critique. We Can Create ultimately succeeds because in not going for the brain, it hits you right in the heart.