His ability to rock a keyboard is what makes Tom Odell an arresting musician.
26 October 2018
It is too easy to see a man sitting at a piano and conjure images of pop superstars and legendary frontmen of bygone eras. But with his recent release, Jubilee Road, Tom Odell adds his unique musical dexterity to the proverbial mix. Odell's defined style combines songwriting that is occasionally revelatory with effusive piano playing. Granting he is considered a contemporary impresario by many, Odell's album, at times, is lost to the capriciousness of overly slick piano and mediocre songwriting. Yet Jubilee Road bares an intimate and expressive vulnerability rendering Odell as a viable factor in contemporary pop music.
Jubilee Road is less bluesy than previous endeavors. Instead, Odell dabbles with various genres including gospel. He employs distinguishable melismas especially apparent on "If You Wanna to Love Somebody". Odell's note-bending adds a trance-like harmony to his already embellished keyboarding. The track takes a decisive turn towards gospel as a chorus echoes and lifts Odell's singing. This technique is revisited in "You're Going to Break My Heart Tonight" when the backup vocals add a cadence of pain and haunting vulnerability. The inclusion of a single saxophone reiterates the sense of desolation.
In interviews, Odell has positioned Elton John as the foremost musical authority, and his influence is evident throughout Jubilee Road. The track "Son of an Only Child" emulates Elton John in vocal delivery and storytelling. At the track's pinnacle, Odell raises his vocal pitch and reaches a satisfying crescendo reminiscent of Elton John's impassioned performances. Odell makes it clear he is referencing Elton John. The lyrics "Except sing about my broken heart / I'm a rocket man" recognizes "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" and "Rocket Man" as predecessors. Whereas Elton John's keyboarding was often taken to a creative extreme, Odell presents more subdued keyboard arrangements and showmanship that maintain his position as a piano-rock virtuoso.
Although, Odell loves incorporating glissandos, running his hands up and down the keyboard, these often become overused and clutter the sound. That is problematic on "China Dolls" and "Son of an Only Child" where the piano serves as an accompaniment to Odell's imperfectly melodious voice, but the glissando adds unnecessary turbulence.
Jubilee Road's lyrics demonstrate engaging storytelling juxtaposed to maudlin reflections of everyday life. The title track provides Hitchcockian imagery of Odell peering out his window and documenting the lives of his neighbors. For instance, he recalls "Mr. Bouvier / In his two-bedroom basement / In his purple dungarees / He's grumpy and he's grey." This simple and harmless act of voyeurism reveals the artist's sense of detachment and his penchant for mild escapism. Further, these lyrics paint an image of a locale so identifiable it exhibits the universality of solitude.
There are a tenderness and intimacy that radiate on Jubilee Road. Alice Merton makes an appearance on "Half as Good as You" and their duet resonates in the power of loneliness. Merton's voice is especially crystalline and scintillating. "Go Tell Her Now" captures the trepidation and awkwardness associated with infatuation: "So you talk 'bout the weather/ You talk 'bout your shoes / You're longing forever / To tell her the truth." These lyrics reverberate a salient emotionality so real it returns listeners to their own awkward blunder years. Likewise, "Don't Belong in Hollywood" takes on superficiality and inauthenticity. Living in the social media era the lyrics "Hello / My beautiful friend...Your pictures don't make sense / Are you happy or do you just pretend?" reflect the contemporary rush towards polished individualism that often only misrepresents and obscures.
Odell's sound and songwriting are distinct and recognizable. However, Jubilee Road doesn't take any risks or establish much creative growth since his previous full-length releases. The use of cliche and double negative in "You're Gonna Break My Heart Tonight" conveys a sense of amateur songwriting: "Saying some sweet lines I wanna hear / Don't take any Einstein to see that it's clear, oh / You're gonna break my heart tonight." Or comparing vulnerability to "China dolls / And your China dolls / Delicate and beautiful" is overused and underwhelming. Despite some creative flourishes, Jubilee Road is a variation of a theme. It's an extension of Long Way Down or Wrong Crowd that saw bouts of genius marred by cloying and tender-footed songwriting.
Jubilee Road evinces Odell striving toward creative finesse, but for now, he is unevenly achieving artistry. Yet there are moments of songwriting panache that are unmistakably ebullient and gratifying. Moreover, Odell's piano playing is beyond superlative. His ability to rock a keyboard is what makes Odell an arresting musician.