Songwriter, musician and producer Matt Hales never quite managed to replicate the success he achieved with his debut album under the Aqualung name. Aqualung’s eponymous album, which was released in 2002, reached the top 20 in the UK albums chart, propelled by the success of singles Strange & Beautiful (I’ll Put A Spell On You) and Good Times Gonna Come.
Those two tracks, along with Brighter Than Sunshine from second Aqualung album Still Life, have been used in so many TV shows ever since – including Skins, The O.C., Gossip Girl, Scrubs and One Tree Hill to name just a few – that there is very little chance of anyone not recognising them. Yet despite their widespread appeal, Hales struggled to capitalise on his potential.
His next two albums, 2007’s Memory Man and 2008’s Words and Music, failed to really make a mark and following the release of fifth album Magnetic North in 2010, Hales announced that he was done with Aqualung. That is, until now. Five years on from his last release, he has decided to bring back the moniker. But while the name remains the same, sixth album 10 Futures exhibits something completely new.
During his time away from his Aqualung project, Hales kept himself busy producing and writing music for other artists. Among the artists he worked with was Lianne La Havas, co-writing and producing her debut album Is Your Love Big Enough?, which ended up being nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize. This successful collaboration – as well as working with Jason Mraz, Paloma Faith and Alex Clare – has had a big impact on 10 Futures.
The record completely alters the boundaries of what to expect from an Aqualung release, with seven of its 10 songs featuring a diverse range of guest vocalists. In doing so, Hales has broadened his horizons and delivered something far more adventurous. This is made clear from the first track, the mesmerising Tape2Tape, which delivers a stuttering, R&B inflected beat to match the soulful guest vocals from Joel Compass.
It almost has a hint of James Blake about it, as does next song Eggshells, which sees La Havas return the favour. The song’s name is appropriate as the vocals from both Hales and La Havas are hauntingly fragile, providing a perfect accompaniment to the sparse piano keys. Another piano ballad, Seventeens, is the first track without another featured artist and, as a result, does feel more indebted to Aqualung’s earlier material.
The same can be said of Hales’ collaboration with Luke Sital-Singh on Be Beautiful, which begins with an interesting and invigorating use of strings, before moving into a rather formulaic chorus – the sort that would probably be picked up by more TV shows. Yet when Hales really pushes himself outside of the singer-songwriter status that Aqualung had become so constrained by, his work really begins to resonate.
This is certainly the case on Clean, where he works alongside art-rock band Sweet Billy Pilgrim to create a world-weary track that is dripping with melancholia. His experimental side goes one step further on Hearts, where Glaswegian electro act Prides help give the song a driving momentum that almost sounds out of place. The best, however, is saved until last, with closer To The Wonder tying up all the loose ends in the most marvellous way.
The time away from Aqualung has clearly done Hales a power of good. 10 Futures may sound like a collection of individual tracks on the surface, but the more you listen the more it all begins to make sense. It is an album of big ideas and to be able to bring them all together as one demonstrates what an impressive talent Hales has developed into. As comebacks go, this one is pretty special.