It is easy for an artist to become pigeon-holed when they achieve a huge amount of success with one song. So, it says a lot about the quality of Wiltshire singer-songwriter Gabrielle Aplin’s debut record, English Rain, that she managed to avoid becoming known simply for covering Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power of Love for the 2012 John Lewis Christmas television advertisement.
Taking on such a well known song for what has (somehow) now become one of the most anticipated Christmas traditions – if you can call an advert that – could have been a risk for Aplin, who was only in the early stages of her career. However, her restrained, haunting version of the track was arguably an improvement on the original and shot straight to Number 1 in the UK, setting her up perfectly for the release of her debut LP in 2013.
Further singles Please Don’t Say You Love Me and Panic Cord cemented the 22-year-old’s growing reputation, before English Rain debuted at Number 2 in the UK Albums Chart. While Aplin didn’t exactly stray too far from the stereotypical singer-songwriter sound, her mesmersing vocals and soul-searching lyrics allowed her to connect with the public in a way that defied her youthful age, demonstrating huge potential in the process.
Two years on from the release of her debut, Aplin is back with her second album, Light Up The Dark, which sees her push herself further beyond her comfort zone and change up the sound that originally brought her so much success. It is clear from the title track that she is determined to move away from acoustic niceties of English Rain, with the song’s driving melody and powerful chorus instantly setting it apart.
“When the devil’s waiting/ down by the river calling out/ I wanna be the one to light up the dark in you,” she sings on the album opener, which takes inspiration from the sort of power ballads regularly produced by Florence and The Machine. It is followed by the infectious Skeleton, where a jaunty piano melody provides the basis for Aplin to deliver a vocal full of attitude. Once again, she shows just how far she has come in a short space of time.
Light Up The Dark is bolder and more confident than its predecessor and Aplin herself has acknowledged that she has had time to hone her skills during her time away. This is evident in single Sweet Nothing, which is the sound of an artist completely at ease with what she is doing. “You think you understand me/ but I don’t even understand me at all/ I feel alone,” Aplin yells, as the song’s punchy riff kicks in.
In fact, much of the record is dominated by this rockier sound. Aplin worked on the album at the home of her friend and guitarist Luke Potashnick – who is a member of blues rock band The Temperance Movement – and it shows. Tracks such as Anybody Out There, which is built around an expansive guitar hook, and Together are heavier than any of her previous work; but thankfully it is a change that largely achieves results.
There are a few moments of fragility outside of the record’s bolder direction, though, with Aplin’s lyrics often concentrating on the themes of loneliness and isolation. The bluesy Heavy Heart is further proof of her songwriting ability, as her sweet vocal wonders over a scratchy guitar riff, while Hurt and Shallow Love are the closest she gets to returning to the sparser soundscape of English Rain.
In the lead up the album’s release, Aplin spoke about being inspired by Joni Mitchell and Feist, with the latter’s influence particularly telling on tracks like the uplifting What Did You Do? and the playful production of Fools Love. Although she doesn’t always reach those heights, there is a lot to like about the direction of Light Up The Dark. It is an assured and accomplished return from Aplin, who continues to go from strength to strength.