Since the release of his 2013 debut album ‘Long Way Down’ Chichester singer-songwriter Tom Odell has made a name for himself in releasing pleasantly uneventful indie-pop love songs. Whipping up stirring emotion through a series of piano-pounds and fist-clenching choruses – and the snarl of his powerful vocal – Odell ranked among a series of male pop artists who seem engineered for commercial success, but tread little new ground with their galumphing heartbreak ballads. Eight years and three Odell albums later, the direction of the most exciting pop has shifted towards genre-slippy, sample-heavy music – mainstream pop records now take on a more experimental structure, often punctuated by conceptual interludes and hip-hop inspired production. And armed with a white vest top and a Moog synth, fourth album ‘Monsters’ is Tom Odell’s attempt at getting involved and shaking things up.
Led by an ominous refrain (“you’re just a monster,” he insists on ‘Monster v.2’, “just a monster and I’m not scared”) ‘Monsters’ is both darker and rawer than anything Odell has done before – often, he delves into the anxiety and strangeness of being in the public eye, and the expectation that an artist dish out their own personal pain to shift records: “I tell my secrets, to stay employed,” he admits on ‘Money’, “they pull the string back and I make a noise.” The frantic murmuring of interlude ‘Problem’ pulls from emo rap, voiced by insistent denial: “I haven’t got a drinking problem” a muffled, helium-vocal insists. It’s intriguing to hear the veneer pulled back.
If only Odell would treat the rest of his subjects with similar care and generosity. Unfortunately he writes about women with a clumsy and patronising pen – on this album, we’re mostly hysterical wrecks who take vindictive thirst traps, and scrub hair dye off our hands like a modern day Lady Macbeth. Each character is an increasingly crude representation of a manic pixie dream girl. In ‘Country Star’ his narrator meets a young American country singer. “She’s telling me all about her new guitar,” Odell recounts, “she’s a little bit clever, a little bit daft”. You can practically hear a fedora ominously approaching in the distance, doffed and ready to explain how to play an A minor chord. On ‘Me and My Friends’ a “skinny” woman with an affinity for vintage clothes shivers continually whenever she smiles, and enjoys a “different kind of fun” – apparently it’s based on a homeless person he met in LA. “People look at us and feel so bad,” he croons wistfully, ”if they knew they wouldn’t be so sad”.
Remarkably ‘Tears That Never Dry’ is worse still, performing a laughable imitation of a woman trying to overcome a break-up: when she isn’t impulsively dyeing her hair pink, she’s holding secretive meetings with “the girls” behind lowered blinds. ‘Over You Yet’ meanwhile finds him tutting at an ex like a scandalised headteacher. “My my my my my, you’re moving pretty fast, hanging out with guys I know you’ve got a past”.
Sonically it’s also an album that feels stitched together like a Frankenstein’s monster, and for every interesting track (‘Numb’ combines his previous balladeering with woozy, Glass Animals-esque production) there’s a run-of-the-mill piano ballad like ‘Lose You Again’ crowbarred in to retain the familiarity factor. The result is a confused collection of songs which could’ve easily formed two separate albums. Odell’s take on darker, more electronic pop isn’t always successful – the hacking and spluttering ‘Lockdown’ is easily the worst song to arise from the pandemic since Gal Gadot and co’s butchering of ‘Imagine’ and not even hawking its production techniques from soundcloud rap can save it – but at least it’s a more intriguing departure from Odell’s previous output. You’re left wishing he actually committed to it fully – currently, all we’re left with is a slightly cynical and half-arsed attempt at getting in on the latest zeitgeisty pop sound.
Release date: July 9
Release label: Columbia