So, to business. The defendant, Dan Smith of Bastille, sits before us. Guilty or not guilty? Let us don our wigs and pass judgement. As you’ve just witnessed, it doesn’t take long for a metaphor to become tiresome. It’s a rule that Dan Smith, singer, producer, and sole songwriter of Bastille, tests to the limit on Bad Blood – and he only gets away with it because the songs wrapped within the whimsy are so consistently good.
No personal experience or observation is sufficiently engaging to be allowed out on its own; it must be framed within a conceit of ready-made stature and drama. So we get history and disaster (Pompeii), a great conflagration (Things We Lost In The Fire), classical studies (Icarus), bible studies (Daniel In The Den), or ’80s TV (Laura Palmer). And loser anthem Flaws tells its story in the guise of a disastrous skills test on Masterchef: The Professionals, Dan Smith withering under Monica’s merciless gaze and admitting “there’s a hole in my soul, I can’t fillet, I can’t fillet”. (Possibly).
Oh, it’s a four out of five, this album. Possibly the most four out of five album you’ll hear in a long time. Dan Smith wasn’t previously employed as a songwriter for nothing, and the record is overweight with memorable tunes, epic and intimate at the same time. The claim that it was recorded in Smith’s bedroom is possibly a little misleading – the production is polished and professional – but it certainly never feels pompous or overblown. The thunderous tribal drums, string parts, and massed backing vocals may recall the excess of Florence And The Machine, but fronted with a gentle South London lilt, like a laid-back Jack Peñate.
The grand scale and dark tone of the lyrics has a tendency to stray into White Lies territory, but where they were an indie band through and through, Bastille are one of the breed who saw the fall coming, and escaped into the safer pastures of pop. Thus the arrangements are taut and well-judged, and the songs are as much about what instrument is playing than the notes being played on them. Daniel In The Den skips along on a bouncy folk metre, Laura Palmer is a New Romantic floor-filler, and Overjoyed offers up the ubiquitous synths and restless processed beats – like James Blake if he had any decent songs of his own.
Opener Pompeii stands head and shoulders above the others (handy when you’re up to your neck in ash), clearing Benny and Björn‘s five-hooks-in-a-track target with room to spare. From the choir of baritone Tellytubbies “eh-oh”-ing the intro, to the impossibly catchy “how I am going to be an optimist about this” refrain, it’s a masterclass in melody that he never quite matches after. It’s an album destined to be remembered with fondness rather than reverence.
But what separates it from greatness is that even after repeated listens, it simply doesn’t tell you who Dan Smith is. What can you really learn from it, except that he’s a very good songwriter? There’s a reason why there’s a horde of people desperate to be Patrick Wolf‘s friend or lover – it’s because he leaves his listeners with a painfully honest, if well-crafted, assessment of his lusts and longings, his flaws and failures. We know Dan Smith has that hole in his soul, we just don’t know why, or how, it came to be there. If he has the honesty and strength to let us know, then the second album could be a classic.