Album number three from the British singer, and a truly great set still eludes him.
Mike Diver 2011
Released three years to the day after his previous LP, the chart-topping (in Ireland, at least) Songs for You, Truths for Me, The Awakening returns James Morrison to the business of bothering the middle-of-the-road with his Rod Stewart-meets-Ben Ottewell tones. There are countless worse noises in pop – but there’s nothing in his voice, fine though it is, that conveys the emotional weight he should perhaps be carrying after such childhood hardship (school-days loneliness, and he nearly died as an infant). It’s a television talent show beast, a chimera of sorts, halfway between the soul singers he loved growing up and the grit of an indie frontman. It just exists, peculiarly passionless, when it should grab hold of the listener and demand that they pay it their utmost attention.
But, again, it’s not an off-putting sound – and there are moments on The Awakening where its audience does indeed sit up and take notice. One such number is Up: remarkable not for Morrison’s measured performance, but that of guest vocalist Jessie J. The BBC Sound of 2011 poll-topper has never sounded as good as she does here, delivering a remarkably understated turn that’s miles away from the horrible hyperactivity of her own album. Their lines entwine excellently, and there’s a warmth to the song rare amongst Artist A featuring Artist B offerings. Person I Should Have Been shares compositional DNA with Sting’s much-covered/sampled Shape of My Heart, but Morrison never edges too close to pastiche (which would be easy to do, given the track’s skeletal form); and the title-track is the slow-rising centrepiece to this record, where a light acoustic introduction gives way to a far-fuller song almost evocative of Stevie Wonder. One Life, which should be a rallying call to embrace the moment, is oddly stillborn on delivery – but it’s a rare blip in consistency.
Yet, as The Awakening unwinds, one can’t shift the feeling that we should be touched deeper. Morrison’s surpassed the likes of James Blunt and Paolo Nutini as a British solo artist able to meld modern pop sensibilities with echoes of his own influences without the collision sounding forced. Compared to those artists, his vocals cut through with a far greater sense of sincerity. But The Awakening is lacking the grandstanding moment it needs to elevate it above reserved recommendation – it’s a safe, steady affair, but about as revelatory as a Chris de Burgh best-of. Morrison has a truly great album in him – he’s the emotional baggage to craft it, should he let locked-away demons loose – but for the third time in a row, this isn’t it.