At last week's Brit Awards nominations show, Jack Garratt, the winner of the Critics' Choice prize, took to the stage with flushed enthusiasm and played his 2014 breakthrough hit, “Worry”, with a skittish, nervous energy. The best thing you could say about the short performance was that it was visually interesting. If you were paying proper attention to the sound, you would have noticed that his singing was off-key and out of time, too.
Garratt is soon to be everywhere. This is partly down to the self-fulfilling prophecy of the two prizes he has just won: the Brits Critics' Choice and the BBC Sound Of… poll. They are both king-makers, singling out artists deemed ready for a major marketing push over the forthcoming year. Previous Sound Of… winners include Ellie Goulding, who fused folk with electro in a promising, if timid way with her early work, and Sam Smith, who won both prizes in 2014 with his universally appealing if unoriginal neo-soul. The artists selected are never particularly daring or avant garde. Had the prizes existed when David Bowie was starting out he would have been considered too much of a risk to be considered.
Garratt has put in a few years of graft. He finished last in the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2005, when he was 14. He has said that he liked being on stage but the experience of losing the contest made him realise that his songs, at that point, were “shit”. Some might say they have merely been polished since then.
He has been on the BBC books for a few years now. Heavily influenced by both Sam Smith and James Bay (he is a similarly earnest, hat-wearing, soul-influenced solo performer) he first submitted an application to BBC Introducing, which fosters young musical talent, in 2009 and was first played on the radio by BBC Introducing in 2012. In 2014, Garratt was selected by Zane Lowe on his BBC Radio One show as his next “hype record”. From there things moved up a gear and now here he is on the cusp of fame.
His music is described as “neo-modern”, a catch-all term meaning everything and nothing. He incorporates lots of genres into his music, often creating an electronic soul sludge. Listen, for example, to the meandering dirge of “Lonesome Valley”, a knock-down, muddied, soulless version of James Blake's “Wilhelm Scream”.
That's not to say Garratt isn't skilful. In fact, he is perfect for the modern music industry. He's a one-man band, who writes, produces, sings and plays, which makes him able to respond quickly to the fickleness of modern musical tastes. It also means that fees aren't split between a team of writers and producers.
Comparisons with Ed Sheeran have come about because Garratt is also a chatty showman and because on stage you see him flit between his various instruments the same way Sheeran pedals, loops and runs around like an enthusiastic hamster with too many wheels to play on.
As Garratt's press releases say, “Every instrument you hear, both live and on record are produced by him alone”. This gives his fans a reason to buy tickets to see him live, and with declining sales of physical music, gigs are where the money is to be made now.
So, yes, he ticks a lot of boxes for record producers. Garratt's soon to be No 1 debut album, Phase, is out in February and is being played with relentless vigour on BBC Radio 6 Music. The limp single “Breathe Life” is the track that everyone is backing as his next big hit. A lot of his music is already available to stream online. Take a listen, then go away, make a cup of tea and see if you can recall a single lyric or hum any of the tunes. Didn't think so.
Another example of his exemplary averageness is “Worry”. It came about because Garratt was having writer's block. According to music site Gigwise, he teamed up with the Danish producer Carassius Gold with the aim of writing “a song in the style of Justin Timberlake that could be used in a J Pop track”. So the method there is clear. Garrattt has gone into the studio with no ideas and given nothing of himself. And they say this industry suffocates true artistry.
His songs won't stand the test of time, they aren't powerful or moving but that's okay because that isn't what music is about any more. Now it's about finding someone inoffensive. A Gallagher would not survive in this new business. New rockers have media training now.
The monetary demands on the industry mean that the quest to find an artist with a broad commercial appeal has become a quest for blandness. Garratt is the sound of lowest common denominator music. The kind of stuff that can be bashed out in a studio in a day to a regular formula.
Some have said that the success of Ed Sheeran sounded the death knell for original music. I would say that he was the template for the death knell, and he is now being replicated in various slightly tweaked guises across the music industry.
Garratt has won these awards because he has been deemed commercial. He has a broad appeal that fits a tried-and-tested formula. That's what these awards are really about.
If Jack Garratt represents the sound of 2016, be prepared for a year of blandness.