It may come as a surprise to many that this is Gavin James’ debut studio album, such is his reputation in his native Dublin and, indeed, throughout the rest of the country. Through steadily gigging and releasing EPs for the last few years he has built a serious fanbase and reputation, culminating in a support slot with Ed Sheeran in Croke Park this summer. At the time of writing he is somewhere in North America on his first headline tour there and he’ll be coming back to Ireland knowing that he’s got four (that’s right FOUR) sold out Whelan’s shows to look forward to this December, with a further three Olympia shows added for January. What a way to promote your debut album.
So what of the album itself? On the whole it falls somewhere between Ed Sheeran and Kodaline with songs of heartbreak and longing making up the majority of the content. Perhaps his most obvious contemporary/competitor (contempitor?) is James Bay. The excellent titular single Bitter Pill, with its ominous, Hozier-esque opening chords, sets the bar pretty high at the outset. Preparing for his conquest of America, the video features James driving a decidedly American-looking car around a decidedly American-looking city with a cast of warring couples in the backseat. Unfortunately nothing else on the album matches its quality in terms of composition or melody, which is not to say there are no other good songs. Rather they tend to blend together in a sugary smoothie which, unlike his Bitter Pill, is a little too easy to swallow.
For You, although ostensibly a standard love song, takes a twist in its clever video where the love in question is between a daughter and her alcoholic mother. It’s an odd choice of single however as the song swirls around the central piano motif without really going anywhere.
Nervous, which featured to stirring effect on his ‘Live at Whelans’ album, loses some of its effect in the studio. The most stirring aspect of the pared-back live version was that its live nature wasn’t apparent such was the complete silence that greeted it in that notoriously raucous venue.
His most potent weapon – his voice – also loses some of its impact in the studio. Whereas live it plummets and soars, as is often the case, the sheen of production brings too much polish to its edges rendering it into a smooth, radio-friendly croon. Perhaps that was the intention.
The Choice Music Prize-winning single Say Hello, also features here, despite being four years old at this stage. Elsewhere, 22 is also a strange choice for a single, being that there is nothing in the least bit unusual or catchy about this nostalgic ballad, however, once again an effectively tragic video turns the emot-o-meter up to 11.
Too often James reverts to Woah-oh-ing his way through instrumental middle thirds and bridges in his songs. Nearly every track on the album employs this device and the result is that the effect of his fantastic voice is negated through overuse. In order to continue to appreciate a fine voice such as this we need a break from it from time to time. This album affords us no such respite.
Doubtless this album will sell well and soundtrack adolescent heartbreak for many years to come. Hopefully album two will see Gavin James step outside his comfort zone and challenge himself, and us, a bit more, because this is all far too easy.