Review Summary: I don't want to be anything other than me!
In an ideal world, the mechanics of reviewing an album are as simple and elegant as the act of listening to that album itself: press “Play”, the CD starts to spin, and slightly over an hour later one has a rough visualization of where that album might lie on a one-to-five rating scale. Only one dependent variable should matter: the amount of pure enjoyment that one derives from the mere act of listening to the album. Under those rules, an album’s final score would always be directly proportional to its entertainment value, which honestly sounds like a perfectly fair arrangement. In such a closed system, Gavin DeGraw’s Sweeter
would in no way be a disappointment; in fact, it would probably be just about great. End of discussion.
But sadly, it hardly ever is that easy. In fact, Sweeter
ends up passing by in a haze of indifference because, even though it has all the gilded sheen of a pop product engineered and marketed to perfection, at its core it is trite, grossly unmemorable, and unmistakably insincere – even by vanilla pop’s relatively shallow standards. Chief among the issues here is DeGraw’s own image. In a world swamped by similar-sounding, cookie-cutter acts (random bit of trivia: I discovered while doing research for this review that DeGraw apparently hangs out with Maroon 5 and Train each time he is in New York; birds of a feather flock together, anyone"), DeGraw remains to us that faceless white dude with music-school chops, a beige tweed hat, and the obligatory acoustic guitar - even though it has already been a full eight years since the release of his debut album, Chariot
. In other words, DeGraw constantly seems to emit the kind of perpetually ubiquitous presence that simply makes it hard to bother with him any longer than is necessary.
Worse, the artist himself has also remained stubbornly insistent on not shaking things up a little musically. Opening track “Sweeter” introduces itself with an all too-familiar series of jangly guitars and faux hand claps, just before DeGraw begins: “You, you don’t know how lucky you are/With that girl on your arm
,” he croons, exhibiting the sort of casual prosaism that sounds terribly shallow whenever it comes from a man pushing the wrong side of thirty. Even from a distance, it genuinely seems like DeGraw doesn’t mean a word that he’s saying. And to make things worse, it feels like the man himself knows it as well. Elsewhere, first single, “Not over You” suffers from excessively wordy verses and repeated instances of over-singing, resulting in the sort of failed attempt at pop bombast that is almost impossible to endure. Somewhat fortuitously for DeGraw however, the song does have the sort of soft, wallpaper appeal that will undoubtedly endear it to the folks in charge of preparing those endlessly looping shopping mall playlists.
The latter half of the album isn’t much better either: “You Know Where I’m At” sounds like a cheap imitation of a James Blunt cut (which is definitely saying something in terms of how contrived this sounds) and even the song that makes the most overt attempt at reinvigoration – “Radiation” – sounds terminally starved of actual joy. The dripping "Where You Are", while decently arranged, is the sort of twanging ballad that has been done a thousand times over. Of the lot, only “Stealing”, which has perhaps the best lyrical turn of phrase of the entire album (“Cause we had a good time/Then it was sorrow/I call it stealing/You call it borrow
”), and whose momentum is backed by pensive piano riffs swooping under the main melody, might be considered as a highlight.
If there’s a defining thread to this whole affair, it’s that all this isn't really anything new. Even if all you’ve heard of DeGraw are his breakout singles of “Chariot” and “I Don’t Want To Be” from his debut album, chances are you’ll still find the stuff on Sweeter
pretty familiar, but in the worst sort of way. When it comes to creating an album, there are a multitude of factors – apart from pitch-perfect presentation – that need considering; but, not unlike a ninth grade student who discovers the harsh realities of the laws of friction and gravity for the first time during his maiden run at the local science fair, this time around Gavin DeGraw has simply forgotten to account for them all.