Monday, October 15, 2018

album review: 'always in between' by jess glynne

So here's something I've realized about myself and pop music: when it comes to sheer competence in song construction, more often than not I'll give acts that might not be the most innovative more of a pass than most. Part of this is the appreciation and acknowledgement that crafting a damn solid straightforward pop song is often just as hard if not harder than making a track in any other genre, but I do think it runs a little deeper, to the pop that did work so damn well in the late 90s on which I was raised. Hell, one reason I've gone to bat for S Club 7 more than I think anyone should is that they put out at least three albums of damn solid, well-produced pop music that might not have blown apart any paradigms but did exactly what it was designed to do - that consistency rarely gets the hype it deserves.

And I think there's some truth to that surrounding how much I like Jess Glynne, because I was much more positive on her debut album in 2015 than pretty much any other critic. Yeah, there were a few misfires in production and the lyrics were never great, but Glynne was a solid enough singer and the hooks were there, enough so that I was genuinely interested in her sophomore follow-up this year, even if I had the expectation that like last time I might not have much to say. But what the hell - what did we get out of Always In Between?

Well, if I'm being brutally honest, not a lot. And this is a weird situation, because I went back to Jess Glynne's debut and I can hear exactly why I liked it and I see some similar parallels here. Hell, you could argue that Always In Between is taking steps in the right direction towards a more diverse and expanded pop/R&B sound - it certainly sounds more conventional in that respect. But that might be to her detriment, because for every step towards other styles, it feels less like Jess Glynne is expanding her sound and more like her identity is becoming increasingly indistinct... which doesn't make for a bad release, but also doesn't make for one that's all that memorable either.

So okay, if we want to identify what worked for Jess Glynne before, it makes sense to consider what I liked from I Cry When I Laugh - and really, a quick relisten to the best cuts makes that abundantly clear: Jess Glynne comfortably splitting the difference between the piano-driven adult alternative of an act like Sara Bareilles and Adele's more strident R&B/soul side, coupled with classy pop grooves that let the flashier melodies come through. And if Glynne wanted to approach greatness, the key thing would be doubling down on those melodic hooks while maybe adding a little more lyrical flair or production texture... and to her credit, it starts promising, with an intro juxtaposing a pretty soulful horns and piano combination that even manages to hold up against the trap beat pushed in, and when she follows it with the sharper minor key piano groove of 'No One' with the clipped bass rollick and handclap, there at least seems to be steps towards some pop-friendly soul that had real appeal. And that sadly exits pretty quickly, as the compositions begin to default to wispy or outright muted melodic samples, overweight bassy beats, and maybe a countermelody on the piano or guitar or tacked on strings buried somewhere behind the increasingly thin multi-tracked vocals, and that's before the pitch-shifting and outright trap elements are dropped in, most egregious on the closing cut 'Nevermind'. Now there are a few exceptions to this - the pianos play off the bass and bouncier beat of 'All I Am' as a slightly more reserved version of something that'd have played on her debut, 'Broken' sounds like a decent enough Adele b-side with as much reverb as it picks up, and there's some decent flashy bounce to 'Rollin' with its flourishes of horns and more kinetic bassline. And here's the thing: Jess Glynne has the pipes to command a modern pop mix and play off the uneven grooves, but some of that would demand they're mixed at a volume to support her or that her vocals were mixed competently, as on a song like 'Thursday' they're actively peaking within the mix or on 'Never Let Me Go' are stuck with increasingly robotic filters against an acoustic guitar of all things. In fact, if I'm going to point to something that goes wrong consistently on this project it's the production - if you're going to carry your melody on organic horns and grooves that are clearly trying to being more organic, maybe your trap beat, handclaps, and bass wobbles shouldn't sound so blatantly flat and synthetic on '123', or all the sterile, ticking percussion of 'Won't Say No' that can't decide on a good keyboard tone to support her thin vocal pickup.

And you know, I'd like to say the lyrics improve enough to pick up the slack... but they were a weakness on Jess Glynne's debut and sadly ring as just as much of a problem here. And I'd like to say the problem is that they just feel a little anonymous and lacking the detail to truly stand out, but the larger problem is that they increasingly don't match the sentiments and tone that Jess Glynne delivers. Coming back to someone like Adele who can pull that deeper, more complex and raw brand of soul forth from her voice and then match a fair amount of it in her content, it's hard not to feel like Glynne is struggling to find that level of dimensionality or added bit of poetry to get there - hell, for as much as I'd argue 'No One' is one of the better songs on the album, it's hard to ignore how much the content defaults to an oversold version of Demi Lovato's 'Tell Me You Love Me' in only finding self-worth from a partner, and I didn't like the original! But that increased lack of self-esteem or inner core of strength is a weird juxtaposition against Glynne's more strident delivery, and it comes across like she's overselling her vulnerability, from the self-esteem anthem of 'Thursday' to how much her relationship makes her a part of her partner on 'All I Am'. And that odd hollowness makes the more peculiar lines stand out all the more, like on '123' with 'If you want security, then baby, invest in me', or the incredibly blunt fractured relationship on the aptly named 'Have/Love', or how 'Thursday' tries to have her embrace her insecurities by wearing sweatpants and drinking gin from a can... odd details, and I'm really not sure it gets to the root of the issues, especially when by the final two songs Glynne delivers a much more confrontational message to bad or fizzled relationships and it feels at least more tonally consistent.

But as a whole... this was a disappointment, primarily because Jess Glynne had a formula that had real promise on her debut and some terrific hooks, and so much of that feels utterly neutered this time around in bad production trying to force her sound into anything that's popular. And with lyrics not improving and production getting measurably worse... yeah, this is a 5/10 and I can't recommend it. Sorry folks, as much as I wanted Jess Glynne to succeed, this is a sophomore slump and she needs to badly wrench her sound back on track, because if folks weren't remembering her debut, they sure as hell aren't going to remember or care about this.

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