3.5 – Great
Reviewed by David Young
As much as he tries to differentiate with each release, poor Jamie Cullum almost always ends up returning to being a middle-of-the-road Michael Buble-esque crooner and Mother’s Day favourite – like a stray dog to its conservative, middle-aged master. His last two releases, 2003’s breakthrough Twentysomething and 2005’s quietly-recieved Catching Tales, saw him take the helm with charming, catchy original material; only to steer off-course with vanilla jazz standards. After a few years away from it all, he’s given the whole music thing another red-hot go on his fifth album, The Pursuit. Even with a handful of covers in his pocket, you can easily see the record as his most ambitious and interesting work to date. Its moments of surprise will lure in even those that couldn’t stand him previously, and even the covers on offer are far more lively than before. It’s an album that’s eager to impress, and is able to do so stylishly and impressively.
At the forefront of the music, as always, is Cullum’s raspy crooning vocals and his somewhat unpredictable, flourishing piano skills. His charming persona has been enough to keep his last few studio outings afloat, but has occasionally struggled to deliver beyond this – especially in terms of his songs’ arrangements. Interestingly enough, it’s the songs on The Pursuit that sound as if they could have appeared on previous albums that are the low points of the album. A mild, slow-motion take on “If I Ruled The World” (made famous by Harry Secombe) is almost instantly skippable; essentially Cullum on crooning autopilot. Meanwhile, “I Think, I Love” – presumably a ballad for his wife, Sophie Dahl – is almost a drunken lullaby, with Cullen slurring his words and barely being able to put the rudimentary chords of the song together. It’s a nice enough idea, but it’s so alarmingly dull that you’d think he would perhaps try a little harder for next time.
For the most part, however, it’s mostly a far more animated experience for all musicians involved. The silky-smooth jazz brushes and creaking double bass that formed Cullum’s rhythm section for most of his career here only make cameos as opposed to the lead roles they previously held. “You and Me are Gone” kicks almost instantaneously into a ferocious swing that’s lead by a vintage piano boogie and swift drum fills and crashes; a lively, sassy affair that is destined for body moving rather than finger clicking. Cullum’s take on Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” (complete with his own cheeky prologue) might start off sleepily, but the second the big band creeps into the mix and quite literally trumpets out of your speakers it becomes all the proof you need of the fact that Jamie sounds genuinely sounds ecstatic about playing music for the first time in years.
This sentiment flows into Cullum’s original material, here taking up a larger share of the record than ever before and subsequently delivering some of the highlights of his career thus far. Lead single “I’m All Over It” is a sweet piano-pop shuffle that toys with major/minor variations and brings out the big guns for a delightfully bombastic chorus. Its successor, “Wheels”, brings the energy back a little with its gentle train-tracks snare and simple piano notes melody. Still, it impacts just as soundly with its tender, emotional delivery and a near-perfect arrangement that thrives on dynamics. Throw in an ode to cassette compilations (the adorable “Mixtape”), a hip-hop influenced funk number (“We Run Things”) and an extravagant seven-minute dance track (the closing “Music Is Through”), and you’ve got a collection of music documenting Cullum’s rise from outside the square and into a realm of his own identity.
In a way, The Pursuit is a strangely fitting title for this collection of songs. Jamie Cullum has been pursuing a sound that breaks the mold he created for himself over the course of his discography to this point. Although it hasn’t entirely been achieved, he’s come extremely close – his best album by a long shot, this is substantial enough to secure enough momentum to continue in this positive direction. Stay tuned for The Achievement.