If you listened to popular music around 2005-2006, or even if you didn’t, you probably heard James Blunt’s breakout single “You’re Beautiful”, and you probably developed a strong opinion about it. Many people hated it. I quite liked it, but here we have the irony of the breakout single: I heard it SO MUCH that, as much as I enjoyed it, I’d kind of had enough of it without ever actually buying the album or anything. And when I did listen to some of Blunt’s other music, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, hearing it as I was through the filter of THE SINGLE. I suspected that I probably should and would appreciate Blunt’s other work, but it was never quite my genre, and I was too lazy to make the effort (appreciating good music takes training and effort, and at the time I was either ill, or doing a forced march through the greats of Russian literature–the two are not unrelated), and, well…here we are in 2017, and I’m listening to an entire James Blunt album for the first time.
So. Just to get one thing out of the way: “You’re Beautiful” is all over “The Afterlove.” Not because Blunt seems to be trying to recapture the same old formula, but because the persona of this album knows he’ll never be able to escape the stigma of his sudden, unbelievable success. “Would’ve said you’re beautiful,” he says in “Love Me Better,” the opening track, “but I’ve used that line before.” And in “2005” he sings that “all I do is apologize / For a song I wrote in 2005.” This could sound whining, or irritatingly self-referential, but it comes off as dryly humble. Blunt’s lyrical persona isn’t so much angry as he is aware that, by winning the fame lottery, he’s become a figure of fun and a background for other people’s selfies. But that doesn’t insulate him from the pain of that awareness, or the fact that “people say the meanest things,” as he tells us in “Loves Me Better.”
And while Blunt’s sudden vault to stardom looms large in the foreground, the theme of betterment weaves its way through the background, not just in the obvious places like “Love Me Better” and the centrally placed song “Make Me Better”, but throughout the album. Blunt’s persona seems aware in every song that no matter how good or bad things are, they could be better, and that he wants to be a better person. Which is where many listeners may be able to find a commonality with the album’s story. Most of us never have, and probably never will, suddenly achieve superstar status, but most of us probably will know about feeling vaguely dissatisfied with our inability to get our lives and relationships together (“Don’t Give Me Those Eyes”), or having good moments in the midst of awkward relationships (“Time Of Our Lives”). The songs are all grounded in specific situations and images, sometimes painfully (to me) so: my main problem with Blunt’s lyrics has always been that he tends to just blurt out a lot of stuff that I might think, but wouldn’t want to say out loud. Which I guess is why he’s the professional pop singer, and I’m not.
Although there’s plenty of gentle melancholy in the album, and the placement of the deliciously catchy “Over” as the final song puts a bit of a damper on the theme of betterment, it’s not a downer by any means: the overall mood is often hopeful. A quick gander on Wikipedia told me that Blunt got married comparatively recently, and then had a son, and, since this seems to be an overtly biographical album, I’m going to make the guess that these two cheerful events are behind the upbeat mood of a number of the songs, and that there are a number of more or less veiled references to them. That being said, you don’t need to know that to enjoy them: if you are into tender love ballads (I’m agnostic on that score, but I find these to be pretty good) that are actually love ballads, and not a creepy story of stalking and depression that has somehow been mistaken for a love song, then “Make Me Better” and “Time Of Our Lives” are top-drawer representatives of the genre. And there are also several slick syncopated pop songs that will get your toes tapping: apparently Blunt worked with Ed Sheeran on the album, and it shares the combination of lush love songs and finger-snapping pop beats that marks Sheeran’s recent release “Divide” (why did you have to name your album with a symbol that isn’t on my keyboard, Sheeran?!). In fact, the overall sound of the album, other than that of Blunt himself, of course, is somehow like a mix of classic Journey and recent Ed Sheeran. If the very idea of that makes you want to run off and vomit, then you’re almost certain not to like this album, but if you enjoy any of those artists, even as a guilty pleasure, this album is certainly worth checking out. I frankly admit that I only listened to it on a whim, but I liked it way more than I expected: it’s catchy, heartfelt, and a bit more mature and thoughtful than the productions of many of Blunt’s younger colleagues. So a pop album for grownups who haven’t quite gotten things together on the inside.
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