That James Blunt was going to make it big was never in question – with the enthusiastic support of Elton John and the full thrust of Atlantic’s marketing department behind him he was bound to go far. It’s just a shame it had to be on the back of such a weak set of songs.
Blunt’s salient selling points are by now well known – Kosovo, the Queen’s Guard – the whole soldier-poet vibe. And he’s pictured looking vaguely Ché Guevara-like on the album cover just to underline that impression for those who weren’t paying attention.
Unsurprisingly his schooling at Harrow and Sandhurst haven’t been trumpeted with quite the same volume – being a bit posh is not in quite the same league as a marketing angle. Not that his toff credentials would matter one jot were his material better.
Unfortunately Back to Bedlam suffers from an entrenched lyrical laziness, a terminal inanity. His songs are stuffed with clichés and primary school rhymes of the “you caught my eye as I walked on by” variety. There are many very good reasons to dislike earnest singer-songwriters of the Damien Rice and Tom McRae type but at least they both know how to pen the occasional arresting image.
It’s not that the album is irredeemably bad – it just could have been so much more. Album opener High is a solid pop track, successfully hard-wiring itself into your brain after a single listen. But it’s as if, having settled on a workable formula, Blunt was reluctant to try anything else – and the rest of the tracks unfold along very similar lines, the gloss punctured only by the odd wrongheaded literary reference or pseudo-subversive lyric: “You could see by my face I was fucking high.”
And then there’s the voice. Reedy and shrill and striving ever so hard to be Jeff Buckley (but never really getting there.) To his credit he is capable of conveying emotion in his delivery and at least sounding impassioned – adding some much needed weight to the songs in the process. But over the course of a 10 track album, boy does it start to grate.
His speaking voice is even more irritating – just as there are faces made for radio, there are voices made for print interviews, and his is definitely one of them.
The album closes with No Bravery, Blunt’s track about the sorry situation in the Balkans. Now, the man has done a tour of duty in Kosovo and as a result has first hand experience of the atrocities, so he’s perfectly entitled to record his feelings on the matter in song. But once again this feels like a missed opportunity – a chance to create something powerful let down badly by trite and tired imagery. Whichever way you look at it ‘War is Quite Sad Really’ is not much of a slogan; as a war-poet Blunt is more Vidal Sassoon than Siegfried Sassoon.
Am I being unduly harsh? Perhaps. Having seen Blunt play live I know he is a charismatic and capable performer. He’s good looking and confident and there’s clearly the kernel of something good going on, though there’s scant evidence of it on Back To Bedlam. Having said that, the album does contain some strong melodies and borderline tender moments: Goodbye My Lover has a plaintive sweetness as does Tears and Rain. But broadly speaking this is a weak and underwhelming effort, and with songwriters like Guy Chambers and Linda Perry on-side there’s no excuse for that.