Three years ago, James Blunt was struggling to come to terms with the implications of his sudden success on All the Lost Souls, the follow-up to the all-conquering debut album Back to Bedlam.
It was a classic case of "second album syndrome", in which the songwriter finds himself estranged from the free flow of influences that spawned his first tranche of material, and instead turns to writing about the effects of fame – in Blunt's case, through songs dealing with the star machinery, the youthful desire for stardom at any cost, and the sometimes scary relationship between the performer and his or her fans.
He still wrote a few love songs, of course, but they too seemed to be stained by his misgivings about the way of the world, their romantic entreaties oddly underscored by fears of military armageddon in a way which echoed the fearful prognostications of folk singers during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Small wonder that he preferred to take shelter in the comforting retrospection of "1973", that album's hit single.
Now, however, Blunt's been through that dark period and come out the other side, into the tricky terrain of the "difficult third album". And, frankly, it's not really gone that well for him: he's reverted to his core strength of love balladry, but in the wake of the evident turmoil of All the Lost Souls, it just sounds rather rote and ineffectual, the routine manipulation of bogus emotional tropes, in which his tremulous vocal mannerisms seem more ruthlessly marshalled than before, signalling a weedy fragility on songs such as "If Time Is All I Have" and "Calling Out Your Name".
Even they, however, aren't quite as annoying as the current single "Stay the Night", which opens the album with a jaunty strumalong about Blunt being out on the pull in his new home of "Californ-eye-ay". As before, the producer Tom Rothrock has applied the retro-Seventies stylings that best flatter Blunt's songs, bringing a classic West Coast Fleetwood Mac feel to "These Are The Words", a song about the traumatic collapse of first love, while "Superstar", about how reality TV has tarnished the American Dream of stardom, cruises along on an underpowered, bargain-basement equivalent of a Bee Gees vocal arrangement from that decade.
That track, along with the paean to the nobility of self-denial "So Far Gone" – in which Blunt offers to take the blame for break-up to save his girlfriend's face – are the most likely follow-up singles, but only in the absence of any stronger candidates, much of the album being given over to impeccably characterless reshufflings of standard romantic clichés. The sole moment of distinction comes in "No Tears", which contains the intriguing lines "I love my mother, but she had troubles with God" and "For the life I led, you had angels in your head", references which remain frustratingly undeveloped in the piano ballad. It's as if he's testing out new directions, future lyrical strategies, but isn't quite prepared to commit whole-heartedly to them just yet.
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