Eugene McGuinness has changed a bit. Gone is the mop-topped, slightly bemused young man posing awkwardly in a fencing outfit on the cover of his debut album. In his place is a dapper, bequiffed gent who, as the opening track on Invitation To The Voyage puts it, is “going for the jugular”. It sounds like a statement of intent – McGuinness has his eye squarely on the pop charts.
It’s not just his image that McGuinness has changed. His second album keeps the quirky, left-of-centre pop that his debut showcased, but there’s a certain pop sheen in place. There are bursts of brass, some surf guitar and a confident swagger to many of the tracks here.
It’s a shift that works – mostly. At its best, The Invitation To The Voyage is imaginative, exhilarating pop with some of the most clever lyrical wordplay you’ll hear all year. When it doesn’t work, it’s derivative and dull. But thankfully, there are more good points here to balance out the bad.
Shotgun, for example, sounds exhilarating – a Peter Gunn sample prowls its way through the song, which has one of those choruses that just entice you to sing along, a euphoric account of a night in a club (“Every time I dance with you, I stagger out the nightclub black and blue, battered and bruised…but I care not.”) Even better is Lion, which employs similar a surf guitar line and marries it to handclaps and an attention-grabbing opening line of “I’m sitting on the ventriloquist’s knee, allowing his hand somewhere it shouldn’t be.”
The irony, of course, is that this witty, off-kilter stuff is the kind of thing that McGuinness has always done well, as previous singles like Monsters Under My Bed and Fonz demonstrate. It’s when he takes a tentative step towards the mainstream that he comes unstuck. Sugarplum has a confident swagger, but is let down by lyrics like “the wheels on the bus will go round and round”, while Concrete Moon’s marching, militaristic rhythm can’t disguise the fact that it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. Japanese Police, meanwhile, makes for an oddly underwhelming final track, especially after following the glorious, swaying celebration of male friendship that is I Love You Josh or the brass-fuelled strut of Thunderbolt.
An uneven album then, but in parts an immensely satisfying one. It would be a shame if, in a bid for pop stardom, McGuinness shaves off the more interesting parts of him that made him such an intriguing figure when he first appeared.