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CD Review: Back to Bedlam by James Blunt

December 31, 2005

Al Barger

There have been a few outstanding albums in 2005, along with some particularly egregious stinkers. I'm happy to end this year of reviews with one of the couple of best albums of the year- and from a new guy at that.

James Blunt just SO totally kicks ass with Back to Bedlam. This sumbitch is a real songwriter. He knows how to write some hooks, develop them melodically, and put some rhythm to them.

More significantly, this album really has some soul. "Soul" is obviously a somewhat epehemeral concept, hard to put a finger on, but there's some emotional depth to what he's doing. These songs are not just catchy- though they're certainly that- but resonant as well.

Indeed, this record got too damned resonant for me for a minute there. I first heard him on Saturday Night Live, and immediately this album got found and slapped into heavy rotation. After a week of intense listening, we suddenly got hit with the first big winter storm of the season down on the farm.

Thus, I was snowed in, feeling rather anxious and trapped getting into the shortest days of the season, watching the suicide video for "You're Beautiful" and the straight up suicide note of "Goodbye My Lover." Grim scene, baby. I had to put this thing down for a few days.

But not for long, cause it's just beautiful work, if a bit disturbing in places. Partly, this was a weird subjective moment of personal vulnerability, but still. I'm long since not some impressionable teenager, and I can't remember when a mere record has ever spooked me like this. That's a pretty fair achievement.

The whole album is excellent, but in particular there are at least four songs that rate as classics. The suicide note "Goodbye My Lover" probably counts as the best song. It's just a perfect quietly dramatic piano ballad. It's SO pretty and right that it starts to sound real convincing. This strikes me as a lot more potent and thus more emotionally hazardous than any damned silly Ozzy "Suicide Solution." This art is dangerous!


"You're Beautiful" was his first song on SNL, and appears to be the featured US promo track. If this thing doesn't make a huge radio hit, then you might as well just give up listening to a damned radio. It's more rhythmically aggressive with the guitars, and less directly sad. [The suicide theme was strictly the video, not in the lyrics at all.] This is as good a basic pop song as I heard all year. I just heard this on the radio for the first time while wandering through a Dollar General, and boy did it cut right through that so-so Avril Lavigne record playing immediately before.

The first single back home in England apparently was "Wisemen." Some folks what wish malicious spite on Mr Blunt compare him to the dreaded Coldplay, with the big piano ballads and all. Not fair! This song especially would compare much more closely to classic Elton John.

It reminds me just a bit- in a good influence manner, not a bad ripoff sort of way- of Elton's classic "Tiny Dancer." I'm not sure if it's quite up with that classic, but it sure beats hell out of anything Elton's done in a quarter century. Also, with those aggressive rhythms, this could really benefit from a creative remix, perhaps a good hiphop producer.

Now, I could at least theoretically hear an argument that he's playing overly casually with the suicide themes. Oh that chick on the subway was SO hot that I think I'll just KILL myself if I can't have her. If the song weren't so exceptionally good, such an argument might persuade me. I've usually got a low patience for that kind of thing.

However, he ends the album with something very real right down to the core, about people with REAL problems. "No Bravery" reflects his experience as a British army captain in Bosnia. Between the lyrical details surrounding it, the music supporting it, and the melodic inflection, the forlorn cries of "He has been here" in "No Bravery" could really put the fear of God into you. I'm not sure just who "he" is, but I'm glad there's an ocean between me and this scary bastard.

Hey, I could be here all day trying to explain this powerful piece of art, but I've only got a few hours of year left. Look, if you're at all interested in pop music, you need to hear this, m'kay?




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