Review Summary: Hand-built or built for success? The answer depends on your cynicism.
The label of ‘the next big thing’ is a poisoned chalice at best. If you fail to meet the expected standards required from you on your first exposure to mainstream consciousness then you fall from a height only reached from the prior hype machine. If you succeed a little too well then naysayers will always play down your own talent and contribution because you were always backed to go to the top and there are apparently too many vested interests in you for you to fail. Seemingly in order to please the discerning pop press, you either have to rewrap an existing style with immaculate accuracy and care, or come out as something untouchably unique.
Enter Jack Garratt. Displaying the same kind of earnest singer-songwriter attitude and one-man-band aesthetic as the oft-compared Ed Sheeran (sorry Jack, you’re gonna struggle to shake that one), Garratt approaches the pop spectrum with a little bit more ambition and spunk. There are a few cliches thrown in for good measure, such as sections of intentionally (and possibly slightly contrived) lo-fi piano and vocal, gospel backed Sam Smith-esque balladry, and the occasional ‘whoa-oh’ chorus, but it’s held together with often-jarring, always well-played and intelligently layered synths and luscious basslines. This record is drenched in vulnerability; his soft words cracking as often as they soar and he’s prone to losing control of his emotions at the pinnacle of his vocal range. It feels as if although there is a naivety in a lot of his performance and lyrical craft, it’s built out of an almost childish sense of wonder and desire to explore - which ties in extremely well with his production style, which often sounds intricately crafted in contrast to rather simple pop hooks. There are massive radio-friendly choruses being offered up regularly (‘Weathered’, ‘Worry’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Breathe Life’ stand out in particular) but while this record isn’t exactly subtle - and the influences that Garratt has are rarely anywhere more discreet than his sleeve - there’s always enough going on to pick apart and enjoy that keeps it just slightly left-field.
There are, understandably, times where this doesn’t quite gel. The production is immaculate and tight, and has clearly been deliberated over with a fine-tooth comb, but the ‘sidechain everything’ approach sometimes makes the songs sound a little more detached and glitchy when the subject matter and smooth tone of Garratt’s voice are crying out for a little more warmth to truly engage the listener (see ‘Far Cry’ and sections of ‘Breathe Life’). The instrumentation and sampling blend in a very saccharine sweet manner for the most part, but while it has a place in the song, the female vocal loop in ‘The Love You’re Given’ becomes unbearable well before the song reaches it’s conclusion five minutes later. It is worth saying, however, that the almost crassly thumping ending to this track is surprisingly satisfying.
On the whole this is a very good pop record. The flourishes of familiarity open the record up to a wide variety of listeners - as there’s as much here for a Rustie fan as one of Sam Smith, and Disclosure followers will probably take as much from this as one of Sheeran’s army of obsessives. As for those two criteria in opening paragraph which could end up defining his success? Garratt flits between both with reckless abandon but honest intentions. His next directions may be unclear (this may just be a Phase
after all - sorry), and it may take a little tweaking along the way, but the signs here are very promising indeed.