Melody-driven lushness and occasional shifts into pop-influenced abandon showcase a voice that has lost none of its sexiness and agility
Happy Ending marks a milestone in the collaboration – begun just before the pandemic, although their mutual appreciation has been going for far longer – between former indie star/electronic adventurist Sean Dickson (HiFi Sean) and vocal gymnast/soul/jazz/contemporary-classical artist David McAlmont. They released a couple of collaborative singles (Transatlantic in 2018 and Bunker To Bunker in 2020), but this is their first joint album.
Sean describes the album as “…a bit ravey”, but, while this is true, it goes way beyond this, to a rather earlier period. For those of us whose teenage and young adulthood years were the ’70s and ’80s, it pushes a lot of nostalgia buttons. For sure, its advertised premise of electronic soul certainly holds, but the suggestion the pair make of it being like a soundtrack finds strong resonance in its melody-driven lushness, and occasional shifts into pop-influenced abandon.
While it’s certainly, as Sean and David claim, an urban sound, it’s also, almost entirely, a summery sound – a carefree, open-topped car-ride of an album (absolutely exemplified in Maybe, but the buoyant atmosphere pervades most of the tracks). There are hints of all kinds of past glories in there (and the two artists’ long histories in the London music scene must surely be responsible for this, either consciously or unconsciously): in the title track Happy Ending, we hear touches of Randy Crawford gone all up-tempo; The Fever has the kiss of The Cardigans about it; Hurricanes, of David Bowie’s ’80s stylings, parts of Real Thoughts in Real Time evoke the synthpop sound of the decade, and there’s feel of reggae from the same era to Diamond Dust; The Skin I’m In goes even further back, with some Burt Bacharach-style backing vocals, while the ’70s get a look-in from a Shakatak vibe in Maybe, and the harp passage and loose structure at the opening of the lengthy Aurora (Parts 1 & 2) immediately conjure Heatwave‘s Boogie Nights.
The interesting fusion element across the album is the deployment (in six of the 12 tracks) of a Bollywood string sound whose luxuriant swoopings and delicate ornamentations provide a timeless quality to the tracks – one recognises the musical tropes of a highly popular current art-form, but the art-form itself comes from an ancient tradition whose ‘westernised’ version chimes with the romance of mid 20th century film soundtracks (the glorious portamento of the string sound in Beautiful definitely brings to mind a Connery-era Bond theme).
Above all, though, there’s McAlmont’s voice, which has lost none of its sexiness and agility in the years since he arrived on the scene in his partnership with Bernard Butler, or slightly more recently in his brilliant cover (arranged by David Arnold) of Diamonds Are Forever, or his smoky, pared-down covers album of 2005 Set One You Go to My Head. The telltale occasional fuzzy croaks on the opening of a line are there, as is the astonishing range. The album’s really only slow number, Transatlantic – full of echoey fading in and out as if broadcast via uncertain radio reception – and the piano-heavy Otherwise provide perfect platforms simply to enjoy his variety of vocal timbres.
While all of the musical elements may have a strong element of reminiscence about them, the lyrics are bang up-to-date, and not always as cheerful as the sound-world suggests; there is confusion there, and darkness; a reaction to the instability of both politics and pandemic; subtle references to Blaxploitation and racism are present in The Skin I’m In: David and Sean recall shooting the cover photo at Dungeness, during which a boatload of refugees arrived; “Which chimes with the post-2016 tone of the album,” remarked David.