Jack Garratt – Phase Review
1. Coalesce (Synesthesia Pt. III)
2. Breathe Life
3. Far Cry
6. The Love You’re Given
7. I Know All What I Do
8. Surprise Yourself
11. Synesthesia Pt. III
12. My House Is Your Home
Jack Garratt is the HSBC of pop. He’s too big to fail. His name is on all the right peoples lips and his hands dwell in the deepest of pockets (Island – Univeral). He is the BBC’s Sound Of 2016 and the Brit Awards critic’s choice, two tittles that may mean little to American readers, but prove vital in ensuring an artist airtime and backing in the UK. The winners of these awards are often considered anodyne (see James Bay), but Garratt is joining some prestigious company – from synth pop sensations Years & Years and indie darlings Haim to critical black sheep, but global superstars Jessie J and Ellie Goulding (not forgetting our imperious overlord Adele).
The British public have grown cynical. There’s a grudging inevitability about both Garratt’s imminent success and inescapable ubiquity that turns the excitement of anticipation into a grudging tolerance of certainty. The grass root feeling of seeing a new star emerge is snatched away and something forced and distinctly unnatural exists in its stead. As such, Garratt’s middle ground sound tends to be unduly dismissed. This is grossly unjust, Phase might not be original and may give off a focus-grouped air, but it is not to be disregarded as trite, tosh or banal.
Garratt has chosen to position himself in a strange space, ignoring the current house and dancehall driven zeitgeist, to look back to the south London sounds of 2008-2012. Dubstep in other words, but not the ham-fisted stuff of stateside EDM, Garratt enjoys the eerie spaciousness that haunted James Blake’s CYMK and Klavierwerk EPs. Strangely, in the post-dubstep era no one ever really took Blake’s hiccuppy, singer-songwriter severity and translated it into a sound the masses could embrace. Phase represents that missing link; blending Blake’s needingly sonics with sultry R&B hooks, confessional angst and the kind of soothing universalism that shot Mumford & Sons to international superstardom.
The trouble with combining the avant-garde with the mainstream, is that the result is often a well-crafted halfway house that pleases no one in particular. Phase isn’t that bad by any means, in fact its really rather intriguing in places, but it does have an over-sculpted feel. It’s too smooth and too sensitive, both sonically and lyrically. Garratt offers so much comfort, he blunts the exciting edges that are present all throughout his debut. The desolate suction of “Breathe Life’s” verse gives way to the buoyant optimism of its chorus, as a series of once revolutionary electronic signatures arrive like old friends. The end product is most definitely a hit, but one that fails to satisfy on a visceral level. Still, despite the inertia, Phase picks up considerable early momentum dispensing squelching, contorted synths and slick house illusions on “Far Cry”, before unleashing the heart melting charm of “Worry” and Garratt’s fearsome juxtaposition of falsetto-and-hum on “The Love You’re Given”.
In his worst accesses Garratt feels too perfect. His lyric sheet is almost unnervingly admirable: toing the line between the mantras of an obsequious self-help book and the frank admissions of a vulnerable artist. “Surprise Yourself” is the ideal example of the former. Sung in a tender wavering falsetto, the track is almost obnoxiously noble and, despite its deep bass, its choral cries and stadium sized groans recall Coldplay’s blandest nadir. Seriously, Chris “I’d rather be a comma than a fullstop” Martin would baulk at a line as sappy as “take a pen and write this down/draw something that can’t be found”. Still, if “Surprise Yourself” is irredeemable sodden: then “Chemical” is bold. Garratt is still a little too right on – he feels like a rom com writer’s image of the ideal man – but it’s hard to argue with either a wildly erratic arrangement (full of stark diversions) or a chorus this snappy and pointed: “My love is chemical, shallow and chauvinistic, it’s an arrogant display”.
It is testament to the exacting expectations placed on 21st Century pop that an artist as diversely talented and open hearted as Jack Garratt could be considered anodyne. Nevertheless, it’s hard to shake the lingering air of sterility that haunts these relatively courageous productions. “I Know All What I Do” might be both severe and recriminatory, but for all its undoubted soul and atonal patience, the Mumford & Sons stadium sized chorus noticeably takes the edge off. And therein lies the problem: three minutes of hard toil and earnest invention can be undone by one bum note or the slightest hint of insincerity and – too often – Garratt takes the listener out of moment.
James Blake created and then instantly abandoned the template for future pop perfection on CYMK (and its echo is audible present on “Fire”). Garratt, to his enormous credit, is delivering an avant-garde vision of the pop landscape that the world was robbed of in 2012 – and that should be cause for celebration (as should his respectful, thoughtful and reflective lyricism). Unfortunately, for all Phase’s soon-to-be hits and heartfelt depth, Garratt’s debut lacks both the excitement of the genuine article and the shock of the new. His naval gazing, pub singer flaws might have long since been exposed, but James Blake possessed a pioneering spirit that Phase’s slick sensitivity cannot hope to replace.
Still, if Garratt is the new industry approved vanilla, then he packs one hell of a punch. In other words, strawberry and chocolate better be on top of their game in 2016, because safety, stability and reassurance isn’t supposed to be this damn sexy.