It’s hard to call Ben Ottewell an icon, just as it’s hard to call Gomez an elite rock band. Since the late ’90s the latter have dinked and dunked on the periphery of global recognition, scoring a few hits and peaking with Liquid Skin, a surprisingly competent effort in blowhard rock music.
For those not yet in the know, Ottewell is Gomez’s gravelly voice – and he has gathered up a few tracks that were scribbled down during tour bus trips and recording gaps. A fairly common practice with active band members, but either through unrestricted vanity or simply for the sake of it, he’s decided to let loose a solo album on the world in the form of Shapes And Shadows. It fails in a fairly obvious way – undistinguishable, characterless, overwrought, and occasionally just straight-up unlikable, it’s kind of like Gomez’s career as a whole.
Shapes And Shadows was apparently assembled from assorted clutter over a period of five years. That’s not hard to believe, considering the whole package sounds more like an afterthought than a piece. Ottewell hits the usual tropes of placid acoustic guitar, light string embellishments and yearning, lovesick lyrics – carried throughout by driving up-tempo drums, either building to a flavourless crescendo or ending in tacky dramatics. You know what type of album you’re getting into when all the violins wait until the back third of songs to rear their swooning heads.
Despite their presence, none of the tracks feel all that filled out, pointing towards the rough sketches and hasty studio sessions this album was probably born from. The sparsely-lit title-track rings interchangeably with thousands of other singer-songwriter ego projects, the frail finger-plucked Chicago hits its stride with an egregiously-forced piano thump, and its follower No Obstacles sounds almost exactly the same – rearranging the aforementioned acoustic twinkle ever so slightly. Not much of a songwriting voice emerges, and it really doesn’t feel like Ottewell is pushing himself. The nine tracks clock in at 36 minutes, all eventually lost in a mushy haze of studio soft-rock flatness. It’s hard to find a shred of ambition.
But probably the biggest frustration with Shapes And Shadows is that it simply refuses to rock out. Anyone adventurous enough to approach a solo project from one of the members of Gomez is going to be looking for the life-affirming, love-admitting anthems, but Ottewell doesn’t go there. His meek attempts at crowd-pleasers are lost in space, and the hollow guitars and frayed voice fail to hit even the most generic of crests. The sole moment of clarity on Shapes And Shadows comes towards the end with Step Right Back, an arid country-blues number that finds a natural fit for his twanged voice, but even then the mix is spread so thin it’s hard to get lost in the elementally beautiful parts.
In essence Shapes And Shadows sounds unfinished, an album for the sake of notching “solo career” into Ottewell’s bedpost, and completely inessential in the grand scheme of things.