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Ah, the burdensome weight of expectations for a new, hotly-tipped artist du jour. Something that 24 year-old British singer-songwriter and multi-dimensional instrumentalist Jack Garratt must be all too familiar with, as he anxiously awaits the first week sales numbers to roll in for his much-anticipated debut album Phase, released this past Friday.
Raised in the small village of Little Chalfont in England’s Buckinghamshire county, the precocious Garratt nurtured his love of music from an early age through his teenage years, citing Jackson Browne, Stevie Wonder and Tom Waits as key inspirations. In more recent years, as best exemplified by his first two EPs Remnants (2014) and Synesthesiac (2015), the industrious Jack—of all trades, that is—has been consumed in defining and refining his staunchly DIY approach to songcraft, as he recently confided to Interview magazine:
Whether it's production, or anything else, I have a unique way of doing what I do, because it's self-taught—kind of not a very good way of doing stuff. It seems kind of unprofessional to some people and I probably do lots of things "wrong," [but] producing, more than anything, is problem solving, for me. For some people, it's the ability to curate sounds around the songs, and give it a nice sonic bed to sleep in, but I always have the sounds in my head and know what I want to put on the track. So for me, it's a problem solving exercise, like "Okay, how do I get that sound in my head onto the record? How do I make that?" and I've always done that on my own, as a solo project.
So evidently, confidence, conviction, and determination are qualities that Garratt possesses in no short supply.
A versatile vocalist with a wide range that often fluctuates from gruff, throaty baritone to impressively heightened falsetto in a split second, Garratt’s sonic palette defies predictable, paint-by-numbers categorization. Damn near impossible to pigeonhole stylistically, Garratt’s genre-confounding arrangements are truly cross-hybrids, embodying a multilayered mélange of styles & inspirations that span electronic to folk to indie to soul to dubstep and beyond. “I love manipulating genre and deconstructing it and making it irrelevant,” Garratt explained to the BBC. “Genre-less music is great because it means you get to write in any genre that you like.”
Indeed, it was Garratt’s genre-less music that undoubtedly helped him win the coveted 2016 BRITS Critics’ Choice Award late last year, joining the elite company of previous winners that includes Adele, Florence + The Machine, Ellie Goulding, Sam Smith, and last year’s winner, James Bay. And just last month, he was honored with the prestigious BBC Sound of 2016 designation, also previously bestowed upon Adele, Goulding, Smith, and most recently, Years & Years. So even before his debut album has been heard in its entirety, Garratt has not once, but twice been crowned the most promising new act in British music by the UK’s media hype machine. No pressure, Jack. No pressure at all.
Irrationally large expectations aside, what we suspect most music heads who have been keeping tabs on Garratt wish to know is whether or not Phase lives up to the industry generated reputation that precedes it. And our answer is yes. And no. Depending on which parts of the album you’re listening to, that is.
Evaluated as the sum of its 12 individual parts, Phase is an ambitiously conceived, intricately constructed, and idiosyncratically executed song suite. Even though there quite a bit of sonic variability exists as each song segues into the next, most of the tracks nevertheless conform to the same fundamental progression. With a few exceptions, and as manifested early on with the stellar, albeit abbreviated, opener “Coalesce (Synesthesia, Pt. II),” the songs begin as downtempo dirges that invariably become more buoyant around the one minute mark before a pounding chorus and Garratt’s high-pitched yelps wallop your senses. The remainders of the tracks then wobble along propulsive cacophonies of syncopated sounds, with the finer moments striking a harmonious convergence that’s wonderful to behold, while others devolve into disconnected hodgepodge mode that, unfortunately, engenders little more than indifference.
Without question, there are a handful of songs that redeem what very well could have proven to be a generally lackluster affair overall. Boasting an insanely addictive mix of sounds, synths and other thrilling flourishes, the invigorated love song “Breathe Life” is arguably one of the album’s two paramount highlights. The second being “The Love You’re Given,” which begins with the hauntingly beautiful vocal sample courtesy of Lisa Fischer, the soul siren known, among other achievements, for her early ‘90s Grammy Award-winning hit “How Can I Ease the Pain” and more recently, her narrative in the documentary film 20 Feet to Stardom. The mournful intro then morphs into a pulsating, hypnotic gem of an arrangement, atop which Garratt explores a withdrawn lover who cannot accept and reciprocate his affection, despite his sincerest efforts.
Replete with bleeps, blips, bass, and claps galore, the dubstep indebted “Chemical” is another bona fide standout. With a more assertive voice relative to the one he adopts in examining unrequited love in “The Love You’re Given,” here Garratt declares that the love he gives is intense, bred from his entire heart and soul, and it’s not to be manipulated, as best captured in the lines “My love is overdone, selfish and domineering / It won’t sit up on the shelf / So don’t try to reason with my love / My love is powerful, ruthless and unforgiving.” Though one of the shortest tracks, “Synesthesia Pt. III” is one of the record’s more sonically gratifying compositions, with its sprawling, spaced-out electro-funk taking your eardrums hostage, in a good way.
However, while the aforementioned tracks all deserve the listener’s rapt attention, there are just as many middling missteps across the album. A good portion of the songs feel a bit erratic and slipshod, with too many disjointed ebbs, flows and about-turns, resulting in too many skippable moments that fail to leave an enduring imprint upon the listener’s ears. Lyrically, Garratt’s tendency to gravitate toward clichéd lyrics becomes tiresome over time, as best demonstrated on the insipid, unimaginative believe-in-yourself anthem “Surprise Yourself.” In a similar vein, the forgettable “Worry” suffers from overwrought, heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics such as “As if this moon of ours only shines a half to make me feel whole / As if I haven’t felt your breath in every step I take when the wind blows.”
Due to its constant alternation between disparate, competing sounds and textures, the aimless and indulgent “Far Cry” is challenging to wrap one’s head around, with a groove that never fully takes hold. Adorned with background sounds of creaking furniture and squeaking instruments, the piano-driven album closer “My House is Your Home” ends up sounding a bit too contrived, too intentionally raw and unpolished for its own good, particularly in light of the more inventively produced fare that precedes it.
Most maddening of all is the radio-ready anthem for eternal youth “Weathered,” which, while well-intentioned, ultimately succumbs to its own blandness, suffering from the same sterility syndrome that plagues other crossover-friendly acts like James Blunt, Mumford & Sons, and Ed Sheeran.
Between Garratt’s ever-fluctuating voice and incessantly oscillating, distorted arrangements, there’s a helluva lot to swallow on Phase. To be sure, it’s an imperfect and flawed record. One that’s largely salvaged by its inescapable ambition and differentiation, if not necessarily by the consistency and cumulative quality of its songs.
Ultimately, Phase and its creator are unique and brave enough to warrant repeated listens, and the album will surely be in the running for the major awards come year’s end, at least in the UK, with a Mercury Prize shortlisting and BRIT Best Album nomination likely foregone conclusions. All in all, Phase represents a solid first effort that falls short of greatness, but contains just enough promise to suggest that, once Garratt more effectively synthesizes his myriad ideas and evolves his songwriting chops, a masterpiece will be well within his reach.