2016 will be the year of Jack Garratt – or it should be, if all the early hype is to be believed. The 24-year-old has already completed the prestigious double of topping this year’s BBC Sound of… list and winning the Brit Awards’ Critics’ Choice Award. But while both these gongs bring greater exposure and recognition, they also come with a whole lot of pressure.
It is generally thought that to win either award is a sign of surefire success. While that was certainly the case for artists such as Adele, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith (all former winners of both awards), there have been plenty of others in the past who have slipped into obscurity. This has become less common recently as critics have gone for safer bets, yet Garratt is far from being nailed on for mainstream success.
Compared to the straightforward piano ballads of Tom Odell or acoustic niceties of James Bay, Garratt’s eclectic, multi-instrumentalist approach suggests a somewhat left-field choice from the judges, especially when it comes to the Critics’ Choice Award. That said, there is still an accessibility to his sound – as demonstrated by breakthrough single Weathered – and this comes through loud and clear throughout his debut record, Phase.
Opener Coalesce (Synesthesia Pt. II) is a perfect example of what Garratt brings to the party when he is at his experimental best. It blends tight R&B beats with huge swathes of electronic synthesiser as Garratt’s gravelly vocals burst into action on the epic chorus: “Rebuild it with time/ but first I’ll open up your mind.” If Mumford & Sons and James Blake had a love child, this is probably what it would sound like.
It is a bold way to kick things off, but it also sets a high standard that Phase struggles to consistently match. As interesting as Garratt seems on the surface, his debut is constantly attempting to straddle the line between being edgy and different and achieving widespread appeal. Ultimately, it is the latter that wins through and the end result is a record that is highly accomplished, but lacking in any real adventure.
When Garratt does get the balance right, though, it is hard not to get sucked in. Weathered may take an eternity to get going – building up from its gospel beginnings to a slow beat and lightly flickering guitar hook – but the pay-off is worth the wait. Breathe Life is another highlight, with its glitchy synth hook and infectious chorus working seamlessly together, while the funky Worry remains as irrepressible as it was on the Remnants EP.
Far Cry is the closest Garratt comes to realistically emulating Blake and, although it is perfectly serviceable in the context of Phase, the song is not on the same level as anything produced by the Mercury Prize-winner. Yet at least it is more interesting than the largely uninspiring second-half of the record, which is led off by the bland and uninspiring synths of I Know All What I Do.
The throbbing beat on Surprise Yourself initially spikes intrigue, but it then gives way to the most forgettable of choruses as Garratt’s voice breaks into falsetto, while My House Is Your Home relies almost solely on the piano for what is a strangely minimalist closer. Although Garratt regains some of the early momentum with Chemical and Fire, which demonstrate his versatility, it remains an anti-climatic conclusion to a record that started so strongly.
Despite Phase falling away over its second half, it is still likely to sell well thanks to the exposure that Garratt has already had. Whether the record justifies his status as 2016’s new star is debatable, but there is no doubting his talent. There is also enough promise on Phase to suggest that once he has fine-tuned his sound, Garratt can go on to produce a record worthy of the expectation that surrounds him.