Britain has had more than its share of retro soul divas in the last half decade. But Rumer is a rather different proposition, eschewing the mannered vocal showboating that characterises much of that crop and delivers real emotional substance. Hers is a mature, unaffected voice, backed up by equally mature songwriting: closer to Laura Marling or Joan As Police Woman than Adele or Duffy. Most of all her sound recalls the blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield and Karen Carpenter. Rumer and producer Steve Brown distil the Brill Building balladry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with uncanny precision but with enough sincerity that the result is more than mere pastiche.
Maybe it’s Rumer’s weightless-yet-worldly voice, or maybe it’s knowing that she spent a decade in dead-end jobs waiting for her break, but these songs have the well-travelled solidity of an old suitcase. Opening track Am I Forgiven? comes in all bouncy swing and brass (its groove initially the dead spit of Terry Callier‘s Ordinary Joe), but behind the lyric’s optimistic appeal for a fresh start is the implied pain in the background. It is the first taste of the album’s thoughtful, bittersweet character. In addition to her melodic gifts, Rumer has a knack for telling stories with economy and power. Aretha manages to celebrate the empowering properties of music and hints at a world of domestic pain. These are songs populated by drifters in need of solace, of someone to hold on to or at least to confide in. Rumer’s intimate vocals succeed in making the listener feel like that confidant.
Lead single Slow has featured heavily on the airwaves of Radio 2 since its August release, and has impressed Burt Bacharach, not to mention jazz-loving former Deputy PM John Prescott. It’s hard to improve on Two-Jags’s summary of this “song about a woman having to suppress her emotions for fear of putting off a man”. It would also be hard to improve on the song itself. Steve Brown’s arrangement alternates between subtly cinematic harp in the verse and soulful guitar accents in the chorus that at once call attention to the languid tempo and drive the song forward beneath the woozy ache of its melody. It deserves every Novello coming its way.
Goodbye Girl, with its harmonica and lighter-waving guitar solo, moves closer than the rest of the album to Carpenters-style Americana – and also, perhaps, closer to the middle of the road. Its “Goodbye doesn’t mean forever” chorus is more by-the-numbers than the rest of the album, and although the song has “closing track” written all over it, it leaves a saccharine aftertaste at odds with the emotional complexity of what has come before.
If the album as a whole is less than the sum of its parts, the fault lies not with any individual song (though some do suffer from bland titles; does the world need another Saving Grace, or another Blackbird?) but rather with the overall lack of variety. Carole King‘s Tapestry may be remembered as a ballad album, but it needed the likes of Smackwater Jack as palate-cleansers. Seasons Of My Soul, by contrast, rarely moves above midtempo or out of 6/8 time, and in its warm duvet of production it makes for a soupy listen, even more so on the second or third spin. But that won’t diminish the album’s efficacy as music for dinner parties or – let’s face it – tender baby-making. Britain, prepare for a generation of little Rumers.