Tom Misch is finally releasing his debut album. If that sounds strange, it’s because Misch has been around for what feels like forever, years of releasing tracks on Soundcloud, throwing together mixtapes and EPs, collaborating with more established artists like Loyle Carner and Alfa Mist. All of this time he’s been bubbling under, waiting for his moment, putting together his “hello” to the world. That time has arrived in the form of Geography, an accomplished, mature disc that will have you reminding yourself over and over again that Misch is a mere 22 years old.
There isn’t a huge market of late for heavily jazz-influenced R&B, but don’t tell Misch. The two-minute intro that is “Before Paris” gives his listeners an excellent idea of what to expect over the following 50 or so. Guitar licks drenched in jazz, with extremely slick R&B/hip-hop beats are the norm here, and if you ever want Misch to fall further to one side or the other, well, you’ll be waiting a long time.
That said, once Misch opens his mouth it doesn’t matter. Whether crooning a ballad to a lost love or just wanting to dance the night away, Misch sings in a smooth baritone heavily tinted by the inflections of his native South London. After “Before Paris” comes “Lost in Paris”, an obvious dancefloor-ready single that comes with a non-essential but perfectly welcome rapped verse from Goldlink, but it’s Misch’s voice that steals the show. He has a dating-but-not-exclusive relationship with melody here, opting for a conversational tone rather than a sing-songy one, and it suits both the quick beat and lyrics like “I hope you’re warm and safe / The memory I can’t replace / You’re lost in Paris.” He’s lost love, but he’s not broken up about it, it was good, but now it’s gone, so he wrote a song.
It’s in this attitude that Misch’s maturity shines. Somewhere between devil-may-care and emotional basketcase lies the well-adjusted human being most of us would like to believe we are, in touch with our emotions enough to let them shine, but strong enough to keep those emotions from overwhelming us. For every “Movie” — a beautiful little song written with his sister Polly that contains such personal touches as “Does my record still hang on your wall? / Such a sentimental way to groove / I hope it still touches you” — there’s a counterpoint, something like “Disco Yes”, whose lyrics also point to a lost love, but in celebration rather than wistful remembrance. Misch would rather dance his troubles away than wallow in them, his super-clean electric guitar licks leading his listeners through complex emotions with the aplomb of artists twice his age.
An in-plain-sight nod to Stevie Wonder, whose influence is all over Geography, doesn’t hurt the perception of Misch as wise beyond his years. By leaving his version of “Isn’t She Lovely” an instrumental hat-tip rather than creating a full-fledged cover and being faced with the feat of duplicating Wonder’s brilliant vocal, Misch avoids the sort of pitfall that can ruin the album of a less savvy artist.
There are occasional moments where Misch’s lyrics can be a little bit too locked in a moment. In the otherwise sublime “Water Baby” (featuring the criminally slept-on Loyle Carner), Misch starts listing situations that might get you down: “When the hot coffee pours will stain / And when the Uber left you in the rain,” he sings. There might be no better way to make a lyric sound immediately dated than to include a reference to Uber. Later on, in the exceedingly groovy “You’re on My Mind,” he sings of a love he can’t forget: “And this fire I feel / Why does it burn so slowly? / Can’t stop thinking of you / Like the five pounds you owe me,” he sings, realizing of course that nothing makes a lover want to come back more than remembering borrowed cash or a lost bet.
That said, Geography feels like the start of something. It’s not necessarily going to break big, at least not yet; there’s no big pop single here, there’s very little crossover potential. Nothing here is going to become ubiquitous. Even so, you can see it coming for Misch, maybe an album or two down the road. Misch has too much talent and too much charisma to stay bottled up for long. Don’t you want to be able to say you knew him when?