Only Real‘s debut album seems to have been a long time in coming. He first popped up a few years ago with some summery-sounding demos and self-made videos that garnered him a fair degree of attention. A vocal similarity to Jamie T and a similar talent for seemingly effortlessly catchy hooks in early singles saw more than a few people tip Niall Gavin as one to watch in 2013… and then there was silence.
Well, not silence exactly – there’s been a couple of EPs and a few live appearances – but it certainly seems that the early momentum of Only Real has been disrupted somewhat. For that’s the problem with an album that’s two years in the making: it can sound rather dated as soon as it’s released. If Jerk At The End Of The Line had appeared before the aforementioned Jamie T had taken five years to complete his third album, or before King Krule had been a thing and disappeared again, then it may have found an audience.
That said, even given the amount of time that’s passed since those debut EPs, it’s easy to see what got people so excited about Only Real in the first place. Gavin’s lazy drawl of a half-rap, half-singing vocal works really well with these songs (although, over the course of a full album, it sometimes becomes a bit wearisome), and he’s certainly got a knack for a melody: the choruses of the likes of Cadillac Girl and Jerk are likely to ring around your brain for some time.
Gavin’s obviously a talent – it’s easy to forget that the majority of the 12 tracks on this album were simply composed in his bedroom on a laptop. Not that any of Jerk At The End Of The Line sounds particularly lo-fi, which is a shame in a way: the sheen that producer Ben Allen has added detracts from the grit and poignancy that is unexpectedly lurking beneath the surface on many of these tracks.
For underneath the slightly jokey image, the truly terrible cover art (if nothing else, Jerk At The End Of The Line is a surefire contender for worst album cover of the year), and the carefully constructed ramshackle air that pervades, there’s a strange kind of thoughtful sadness weaving its way through many of Only Real’s songs. Can’t Get Happy may sound like a party anthem, but there’s a yearning and desperation in Galvin’s chorus, while the excellent Yesterdays is about yearning for carefree days of youth once those days are all over.
Yet all too often, there are moments that feel like filler, as if Galvin’s hit the template of ‘sunny yet insubstantial indie-pop’ and there are a few too many songs that sound like Jamie T cast-offs. It’s understandable on a debut album – very few young artists produce a throughly confident and startling first record, but it does mean that the quality of these 12 tracks does vary greatly.
It works best when Galvin takes a darker, sadder turn – the grimy hip-hop of Petals sounds genuinely refreshing, and the wistful closing track When This Begins, with the poignant delivery of lines like “guess I’m all grown up” hints at greater things to come. Think of this as more of a promising introduction than the finished product.