James Blunt , officially the biggest-selling act of this millennium, sounds rather conflicted for large parts of All The Lost Souls, and not without reason. The expectations for this follow-up to Back to Bedlam must have been enormous. How could he possibly equal that success? Was its magnitude justified? How big would the backlash be?
The conflict is most directly addressed in "One of the Brightest Stars", on which the singer takes a dig at the papers who first adore you, then "send you to... the grave". It's a strange song: Blunt never really decides whether it's a celebration of talent or a criticism of the star machinery, and carefully avoids the notion of artistic merit that might validate the former and counter the latter.
He returns to the theme several times. "Annie" is a song to a failed wannabe pop star whose 15 minutes of fame will come, he assures her, because he's written a song about her. Here too, there's an evident conflict in the queasy mix of empathy and gloating. The album closer, "I Can't Hear the Music", is a creepy number about a singer, Yoshimi, running scared of a crazed fan offended at what he considers her selling out.
Blunt applauds Yoshimi for being "strange and new", characteristics notable for their absence here. There's nothing in these arrangements, or Tom Rothrock's bland production, that might scare the horses. The style crystallises around the retro-AOR period sound of "1973", Blunt as the dark, introverted yin to Elton's flamboyant, ebullient yang, which makes sense commercially but offers few musical challenges.
His affinity with Seventies singer-songwriters extends to the glum, apocalyptic tone of many of Blunt's songs. On "I'll Take Everything", the prospect of inevitable death supposedly spurs the singer to "take everything in this life" – though he sounds none the happier for it; on "Give Me Some Love", dissatisfied at the failure of "shiploads of drugs" to cure his pain, he pleads for love because "someday soon they'll drop the bomb". The prospect of Armageddon also underscores "I Really Want You", as the singer seeks solace in religion or romance for having "killed a man in a faraway land, my enemy I'm told". When Blunt grasps the nettle in the plodding "Same Mistake" and takes the Blair/Bush axis of imperialism to task for sending young men off to die, he lets them off the hook with the bland admission that they'd "just make the same mistake again". Which may be all one might expect, but doesn't come close to what's required. Rather like this album, in fact.
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