Apparently when Charlie Winston was a child he wanted to be an actor, so it’s only fitting that the English singer-songwriter currently resides in France, the birthplace of cinema. Still largely an unknown in his home country, Winston is a bona fide multi-platinum superstar in the French Republic, with previous album Hobo peaking at Number 1 and spending 30 weeks inside the Top 10.
Certainly with his broodingly handsome features, snappy dress sense and affected whimsy he ticks several boxes in the big book of French stereotypes. This perhaps gives some indication as to why his charms have so far failed to translate back across the Channel – the UK can be notoriously unforgiving of any hint of pretence. Nonetheless, Hobo was an entertaining (if derivative) effort which held much promise, and you don’t have to be hugely sensitive to detect the hopes which are pinned to Running Still, Winston’s third effort and described in consummate PR-speak as “the album to which his whole life has been leading”.
This comes as a bit of a surprise as much of it sounds not unlike his last one. Opener Hello Alone is a polished take on Hobo’s infectiously rhythmic folk, its earworm chorus easy to imagine blasting from Radio 2. In fact, it’s not difficult to envisage Olly Murs singing the song. Winston certainly has a knack for pop hooks and songs such as the driving Wild Ones seem tailor-made as radio anthems, albeit hampered by an overly glossy production.
Winston would, however, almost certainly baulk at being mentioned in the same sentence as Murs – instead his influences include such iconic artists as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Stevie Wonder. There’s no problem with that, of course – today’s pop scene undoubtedly could do with several shots of whatever those artists have. Yet this inspiration finds an uneasy expression in Running Still, an album which seems at once determined to break Winston in the UK while going to pains to emphasise his quirkiness. So Hello Alone is followed by Speak To Me, a song best described as Fisher Price Tom Waits. With its beat-boxing, noisy percussion and singing-cum-rapping delivery it aims for a beguilingly shambolic inventiveness, but its intentions are writ so large that it only seems try-hard.
The later Rockin’ In The Suburbs similarly loudly announces its ersatz bohemia, while The Great Conversation clearly fancies itself as a work of near-genius. Delivered as a love letter to Beethoven (and featuring an interpolation of his Moonlight Sonata), it longs for the age when “music filled the page” and contrasts this with the present where “this song here may be too much to please the ear because it’s wordy and demonstrative”. Unfortunately it’s not remotely as clever or compelling as Winston thinks it is, and comes across as hopelessly smug.
Such a schizophrenic identity is typical of an album which seems intent on portraying Winston as a multi-faceted virtuoso – indeed, he himself proclaims that he finds it “near impossible…to write in one style only”. Too often though these stabs at versatility end up as clichéd impersonations, which the lascivious Until You’re Satisfied in particular falling far short of its Prince inspiration. This is a great shame as Winston is undoubtedly a hugely charismatic performer. More than that, when he calms down and stops trying so hard he finds an affecting simplicity. The pretty She Went Quietly has already featured on Grey’s Anatomy which should immediately clue you in on its particular kind of gentle emotion, while the spikier Unlike Me is a warm folk-jazz number built around an unvarnished acoustic riff.
A more relaxed and straightforward album comprising songs like these and the proficient commercial numbers would have had a good chance of endearing Winston to the kind of audience who buy Ed Sheeran and Robbie Williams albums in large numbers; yet if his heart doesn’t lie that way, you can’t help but wish that he’d throw caution to the wind and make a bravely idiosyncratic record. As it is, Running Still falls between the two, and it’s difficult to imagine it garnering much attention in the UK. Still, there are enough glimpses of singular talent to suggest that we shouldn’t rule Winston out just yet.