It proves well nigh impossible to consider Charlotte Church‘s second pop album without taking in the break up of her marriage to Gavin Henson and subsequent new flame, Jonathan Powell, who wrote the lead track and single Back To Scratch. Like it or not, she could hardly have asked for more rigorous promotion than the tabloids have given her. But is the music up to scratch?
The answer falls nearer to no than yes. It doesn’t take long for Church to make clear the tough and emotional times she went through during recording, times that are freely expressed in the lyrics.
So as people get the magnifying glass out to look for clues to the end of her relationship, they’ll find them sprinkled liberally through the album. We Were Young puts on a little girl voice and has the requisite regret. She talks of how “we would talk through the night of what we could achieve”, but also how “there were times when we put each other through hell”.
The problem in these tales of emotional torment is, surprisingly, the voice. While it is clearly a hundred times better, technically, than a singer such as Cheryl Cole, it is never fully taxed on songs like Back To Scratch, catchy though it is. When she sings on Unravelling, the emotion is still one of strength, not vulnerability. And so it proves as the album progresses, the emotion staying stock centre, not revealing too much above the glossy arrangements.
Nor are the songs particularly memorable, which after a while makes you pine for the Charlotte Church of Crazy Chick. You long for her to flick back her head and show a bit of attitude, or a spark of originality. “I’m a mixed up girl, in a logical world,” she offers, but she might as well be ordering a takeaway, such is the emotional detachment.
The tunes can be good – but are still few and far between. Back To Scratch has a nice wistful quality to it that looks back as well as forward. But nothing here is really memorable, drenched as it is in largely forgettable, frivolous piano asides, suspended in a thick soup of guitars or strings, above drum beats that are never less than predictable.
Given the vocal ability she clearly retains, this feels like a missed opportunity. For while the lyrics offer clues to the end of her marriage and the torment that wrought, the music turns them firmly towards the middle of the road, and no amount of listens can convince otherwise. It sounds like the sort of music that used to soundtrack Dawson’s Creek, and might now go behind One Tree Hill or Gossip Girl. Is that a bad thing? In this case, yes – for only Don’t Think About It really elevates above this to anything near her full capabilities.
Cup Of The Sun tries something different, attempting to find a wacky side as Church sings, “I took a cup of the sun, and drank to a beautiful world”. It’s a fantasy song – but again lacks the whimsy in delivery. So too with her cover of Joni Mitchell‘s River, which is nicely orchestrated but too calculated in its mannerisms.
It all adds up to a strong feeling of opportunities missed for the Welsh warbler. Given the opportunity to open her heart and bare her soul, she does so lyrically, but fails to make the transition from printed page to recording studio.