Sometimes pop music can throw you such a curveball, you have to stop – just for a moment – and reconsider what it means to you. You think you know what works, what doesn’t, which neat box every component fits into. And sometimes, as if gravity itself had failed, all those preconceptions and quasi-rules fall by the wayside. Aiden Grimshaw’s debut album is one such moment, and what it offers goes far further than even the most optimistic of his supporters might have dreamed of when the young man performed on The X-Factor; a show that every week seemed to under-serve the talent he so clearly hinted at possessing. Lead single Is This Love presented a taste of the star’s dance-pop delvings, but it takes the rest of the album to uncover what a transformation Grimshaw has worked on himself.
Early highlight What We Gonna Be is excellent – a playground of acid house piano riffs, arching falsetto vocal lines and dancey beat-poetry that recalls a toss-up between Example‘s lad anthems and criminally underrated synth-popper Frankmusik. Be Myself provides a stark, down-tempo contrast, but unequivocally offers up one of the album’s strongest moments. It’s beyond beautiful – a sweeping elegy of a song that feels like the first time you ever heard Moby‘s Porcelain; all glacial piano lines and the first touches of winter creeping across green hills, leaving icicles and sullen grey skies in its wake.
The hushed minimalism of his cover of Sia‘s Breathe Me and Poacher’s Timing, like so much of the spider web fragility on offer here, play like something off the soundtrack of Scandi crime thriller The Bridge. The production is staggeringly slick, and if we’re to take Misty Eye as a genuine piece of high-grade electronic pop, this feels pretty integral to its existence. Grimshaw seems happily content to step back from the limelight, inserting himself into the wider fabric of each track, becoming a single element working together with every other fragment of the complete work. Vocals echo away into nothing, whispering into glitchy tributaries of sound and dubby spaciousness.
But when he needs to be, he’s there at the forefront too – a voice with identity, with soul, with personality. It’s become an almost comical accoutrement to Grimshaw’s public identity that he was the ‘intense’ contestant, but if seriousness is his defining characteristic, he draws from it so much heart and soul as to enervate moments of Misty Eye with a passion that often borders on the breathtaking. The title track in particular stretches notes out into trembling emptiness, carrying lyrics that can easily be read as a personal diatribe on the flash-fame culture of The X-Factor itself: “You watch me stepping out of the light, emotion bottled up inside, what am I to say, should I float away to nothing.”
That the frenetic drum ‘n’ bass of Nothing At All, underscored by Massive Attack-styled string sections, could ever have come from one of the ITV show’s progeny feels unbelievable. And in a way, the constantly dawning realisations of ‘am I really hearing this?’ that characterises not only the first, but repeat, listens of the record is one of its greatest pleasures. Last year, when Girls Aloud star Nicola Roberts released her solo debut Cinderella’s Eyes, she may not have broken any sales records, but the near universal praise that greeted the album from even the most staunch defenders of ‘proper’ music felt like a living affirmation that pop music really could be that intelligent, that powerful, that daring. In that respect, Misty Eye feels like the male twin to Cinderella’s Eyes.
What Grimshaw has achieved here is remarkable, both for Misty Eye’s quality, and for its sheer braveness. Subverting all expectations, melding himself around reality TV prejudice, Grimshaw’s debut places him as one of 2012’s most promising male solo talents. For every dour critic who reels off the knee-jerk criticism that The X-Factor never produces anything of worth, Misty Eye stands in opposition – not only a great pop album, but a thing of genuine artistic merit.