Boo Hewerdine has lived on the fringes of the mainstream music industry for the better part of 20 years. His brief brush with the fame arrived via his former band The Bible and their minor hit Graceland in 1988. Since then he has carved out a solo career whilst writing and producing for artists ranging from Natalie Imbruglia and Alex Parks to k.d. lang and Eddi Reader. God Bless The Pretty Things sees Hewerdine standing behind the microphone once again with his acoustic guitar in hand.
Hewerdine’s sound is a smooth country folk hybrid with flashes of understated jazz. There is a little shading from a fiddle here, some walking double bass there. The production is light and airy, the guitars crisp as a newly ironed shirt and his vocal is light as a summer dawn. In all, it’s not that far removed from radio-friendly Corinne Bailey Rae, or Everything But The Girl before they discovered pills and beats. As a collection it’s subtle, understated and… rather dull.
Production this passive and unobtrusive can really highlight and heighten material if there is a strong melodic edge to the songs. Unfortunately here the opposite happens; the songs are flattened and muted by the naturalistic approach. Soul Mate has the potential to blossom into a lovely rumination on love and regret, but the starkness of the backing is too sparse to convey the message it contains. The spark seems to have been misplaced. If the songs reveal themselves slowly, it’s at the pace of continental drift.
What is lacking is some grit, passion, pain or anger. There is no rapture in the passive flow of the tracks as they slide each into the other. The same sound palette deployed here can be emotionally engaging. The blistering yelp of pain in Bon Iver‘s Skinny Love or candid anger of Mumford And Sons‘ Blank White Page stand as testimony to that. Hewerdine doesn’t scale such heights.
Paris After the War sums up the problems neatly. Its accordion opening, with a gentle guitar strum and pithy lyrics, should result in a minor classic. But it ends up sounding like a callow sophomore cover version of Elvis Costello‘s America Without Tears. An air of a songwriters’ workshop hangs over everything, as though this is music by design rather than inspiration. There are neat middle eights, bridges, melodies and lyrics, but where is the wrath and regret? There’s no sense of urgency, no desire, no lust; just a self-satisfied sense of artistry.
The paradox is that Hewerdine has mastered the songwriters’ toolkit, but that very mastery has robbed this record of an edge. His career as a songwriter for hire has kept the wolf from the door and provided a comfortable living, but somewhere along the way the fire seems to have gone out. There are the embers of something better here, but will Hewerdine be able to rekindle them?