Calling yourself a ‘genius’ of any kind is a risky business, and if it’s a road you want to go down you’d better make sure you have the chops to back it up. Genius implies an ability to look at the world and see something other people can’t, or to come up with something challenging and inspiring that changes the way people view the everyday. On that basis, Chocolate Genius Incorporated’s Swansongs definitely falls short.
With singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson’s pedigree – scoring for film and theatre, and a stint in Bruce Springsteen‘s backing band – it’s no surprise that his fourth album under the Chocolate Genius guise is dripping with polish. But the effortless gliding between styles in the 11 short songs belies a lack of substance underneath, despite being very fluently executed. The giveaway comes in How I Write My Songs, with the lyric “I showed my soul to the woman at the liquor store / She said ‘is that all?’”, a response it’s easy to understand, as this is ultimately a soul album with no soul. It’s very neatly put together, mind, and stylistically varied – the lazy funk groove of Enough For You contrasts with the modern Nashville feel of Ready Now and Kiss Me, and the piano-led Like A Nurse and Sit & Spin are musically very pleasant, though what could have been a full-blooded gospel epiphany in When I Lay You Down ends up as nothing more than a post-Spiritualized mock-trip-hop hum-along.
When the boat is pushed out into more experimental territory we end up largely with filler – Mr Wonderful has a gentle skittery electronic backing overlaid with samples from Thompson’s answerphone and feels very like early Faultline, and the regrettable Lump feels like a failed experiment with hip-hop, with a slow r’n'b groove overlaid with out-of-place lazy swearing which seems to demand attention without remotely justifying it.
Lyrically it’s a break-up album, but unlike the tortured openness of, say, Beck‘s Sea Change, it feels like an impersonal exercise in mimicry. There’s no insight in lines like “Like a king on a dusty throne / I never felt so alone” in She Smiles, or “I swallowed seven seas to keep you happy / But I still didn’t do enough for you” in Enough For You, and by the time the line “Scared to live, I’m not afraid to die” rolls round in closing song Ready Now it’s hard to shake the image of a small boy confessing his sins for the first time but having nothing to confess, and instead repenting things he feels he probably should have done to avoid the embarrassment of tediously forgettable innocence. There’s neither a sense of pain, nor of weary resignation, and it all feels like a mask of defeat and loss which just makes the wearer look smug, which is in no way helped by the self-satisfied emphasis of emotive quirks in the vocal.
All told, it’s not a bad album but it follows in a long tradition of coffee-table music. The best songs are, as with all confessional music, the most simple ones, but they’re frustratingly short for such slow music – stand-out track Kiss Me stops after one verse and chorus, and Polanski, probably the most interesting song lyrically, comes to an abrupt halt just after the 2’30″ mark. As background music it ticks a lot of boxes, but ultimately it’s boil-in-the-bag soul whose stylistic variety feels like a less ambitious version of Badly Drawn Boy‘s first album. It would be churlish to deny the musicianship here, but perhaps Chocolate Genius is an apt description after all – talented though he may be, under the heat of the studio lights the ‘genius’ has melted away and left a sickly stickiness in the stereo.