You know what? The pop scamp’s diverse second album is actually pretty good
In 2007, Jack Peñate was dragged yapping through the Ginsbergian negro streets of indie, whipped, scourged and flogged for his sins. It was not entirely his fault. He’d had the misfortune to arrive at a historical moment that made him the dregs of the fag-end of the last legs of the boom in tinny, post-punky mainstream indie. But in the end it was his name above all others that became a byword for the state of stale, anaemic guitar pop.
A lesser man would refuse to admit that this seriously hurt. Not Jack. Witness his own hopes for ‘Everything Is New’: “A record with integrity. That’s what I wanted. That’s all I wanted. As we went into this record I was desperate for that. Desperate is the word. It’s not a nice word but it’s completely true. The whole process was that. I was needing to change who I thought I was.” No wonder his comeback single, ‘Tonight’s Today’, had him “ringing churchbells” – by the end of his time in the hit parade, Jack was indie’s Quasimodo.
So, like the hunchback he’d become, he sequestered himself away for 12 months. Unlike most hunchbacks, though, he had a glamorous companion in the form of producer Paul Epworth. The pair set about making extensive renovations to Jack’s whole being, listening to Can, Brazilian Tropicalia, Philly soul, dancehall and Fela Kuti. Christ on a bike – he only needed to add ‘minimal techno’ and he’d have hit the complete set of achingly hip touchpoints. But rather than vomit up a toxic stew of Hoxtonite sonic one-upmanship, Mr Peñate seems to have found his groove in the strangest of places. In fact, ‘Everything Is New’ wears its heavy influences lightly, and with a coherency that belies their range. ‘Be The One’ finds Jack quantum leaping into an NYC disco suit. The title track heads for São Paulo by way of Haiti. ‘Body Down’ borrows its loping piano chords from Southern hip-hop. And yet everywhere the same house-y, bliss-y, glossy tone swells in the head. It’s a huge, yawling echo chamber of an album, landscaped by the feeling that it’s hot, it’s night-time and someone’s got their eye on someone – there’s magic in the air and possibly a gun in the glovebox.
Even so, part of what ‘Everything Is New’ suggests is that, no matter how far you travel, at some level you can’t outrun yourself. Jack’s always been a gratingly heart-on-sleeve kind of guy. Sometimes his new format allows him to whip this into fevered passion. Sometimes – like on ‘So Near’ – it leaves him dangling on the edge of naff. There’s also a question mark over how much of Peñate’s hipster-graft is genuinely organic and how much is just Epworth cutting a Jack-shaped hole in his own production genius. ‘Let’s All Die’ may be coated in voodoo “yay-yay-yas” and hosed with saucy mbaqanga rhythms, but strip those back and at the centre there’s a rather rinky-dink bit of indie songwriting that could just as well have fallen off the back of ‘Matinée’.
None of which should be allowed to eclipse the basic point: former pariah Jack Peñate has made a record that’s light on its feet, has glamour bordering on sex appeal and that doesn’t make you wish a fatwa upon its author. It’s a model for second albums everywhere and a testament to what can be achieved if you’re prepared to take a long, hard look at the man in the mirror. Let the bells ring out.
Click here to get your copy of Jack Penate’s ‘Everything Is New’ from the Rough Trade shop