Music Reviews: A Cold Night In The Garden, Or Below The Afterlove

July 5, 2022

By BRUCE DENNILL

Honne: Warm On A Cold Night

Elevation Worship: Hallelujah Here Below

James Blunt: The Afterlove

Kari Jobe: The Garden

 

Honne comprises singer-songwriter Andy Clutterbuck and instrumentalist and producer James Hatcher, and on this first full album (the duo have a number of EPs to their credit), they combine 12 luxuriously produced electro-pop tracks to suggest the soundtrack to a night out at some sort of high-end society event – a stripped-down Coldplay adding ambience and rich atmosphere. It is both the collection’s strength and weakness that it does sound like a soundtrack. On the upside Warm On A Cold Night is well-named in terms of the how its sound and the lyrics to many of the songs evoke the cozy romance of a new or otherwise intense relationship. On the downside, the shared musical personality of all the songs means that standout tracks are rare. The title track, right at this start, shows off Clutterbuck’s communicative vocals and layered arrangements, and Good Together, late on in the album, is packed with soul that’s coupled with an easy-to-gasp groove. Ironically, given that, at its release, this was the largest bringing together of Honne songs in one place, it can probably be better appreciated by listening to the tracks in isolation.

 

Worship music, by definition, is built around a narrow range of lyrical themes, and because the songs in this genre are generally designed to be sung by congregations of non-professional singers, the variety of hooks and song structures is also limited. So finding a collection where a large part of the tracklist simply works right from the get-go is rare, particularly when the band involved is one of the genre’s established brands, with a particular sound now well established and expectations duly adjusted. The opening five tracks are all anthemic, with Here Again and the title track being slower in tempo terms but no less powerful, and the latter being an early contender for the album’s best song. Hallelujah Here Below being a live recording helps to communicate the passion for the songs’ subject matter to the listener, making it commendably easy to connect with as a listener with a shared heart for worship. If there is one stumbling block here, it is that the live arrangements of the songs are long, so it’s easy for listener attention to wander in the final third, where the songs, though by no means weak, don’t have the same punch as the earlier entries.

 

There is still plenty of James Blunt in the songs on The Afterlove – the distinctive voice, the sensitive-to-swagger axis in terms of both lyrical content and vocal delivery, and occasionally, the humour evident in the singer’s off-stage persona – but it’s different enough from the rest of his output to support a notion that there was an agenda evident in its creation. A glance at Blunt’s collaborators on the project – a list that includes Ryan Tedder (frontman of OneRepublic, songwriter for Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and others); Stephan Moccio (songwriter for Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Celine Dion and others); Zach Skelton (writer for the Jonas Brothers and Backstreet Boys, among others); and Ed Sheeran (well, Ed Sheeran) – suggests two things. One, that Blunt would like to be positioned in prime pop position, possibly for a younger audience than he was generally appreciated by; and two, that the American market was the main target audience for this project. A reasonably predictable outcome of both of those strategies is that, bar the aforementioned Blunt-isms, the songs sound safely generic, custom-designed for chart friendliness and MOR box-ticking. And for all of the input from the undeniably talented co-writers and producers, not all of their music achieves hit status, and too much of The Afterlove is well-made but inconspicuous pop, short of the mainlined emotion and more natural instrumentation and arrangements of Blunt’s best work. There’s plenty here – Love Me Better and Bartender among them – that Sheeran or Justin Bieber – could get away with more easily, but both those singers are in their twenties, while Blunt is closer to 50 than 40. The sentiments expressed apply differently in those contexts, and are more believable coming out of the mouths of younger singers. Heartbeat feels more authentic, beginning with picked acoustic guitar that is slowly bolstered with strings before a resonant kick drum adds atmosphere under a multi-tracked chorus vocal. This is not a bad album, but it’s an unnecessary stab at relevancy. For all the way that Blunt polarises audiences, he will always have enough genuine fans to make pandering to potential new followers seem like a bit of a waste of time.

 

At her best – 2010’s Gateway Worship song O The Blood is a highlight worth noting – Kari Jobe can be one of the most powerful, emotive voices in contemporary worship. Hearing the nuances of her vocals is key to the impact that she makes, and surprisingly often, producers wrap up her singing in arrangements that fill in all the space her breathing, phrasing and expression would otherwise make unforgettable. Sonically speaking, The Garden is full of such moments, with producer Jeremy Edwardson a major proponent of the full-time, full-scale keyboard underpinning that might make sense in the arena-sized mega-churches that often host acts like Hillsong United or Jesus Culture (two other acts he’s worked with) for live shows, but which rather over-fill the gaps here. The title track, which opens the collection, is lyrically moving – Jobe’s processing of a painful personal event via some beautiful metaphorical wordplay, but the first song featuring the sort of backing that allows Jobe’s voice to step clearly out of the backing is I Will Sing, six songs later. Miracles, another song borne out of trauma, is convincingly covered here, being a better fit for Edwardson’s layering than some of the other material. Here As In Heaven features Jobe’s husband and fellow worship leader Cody Carnes taking the lead vocal that combines well with her backing. There remains, when reaching the end of the album, a sense that something perfectly competent has been presented, but that something potentially sublime has been misplaced.

 

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