REVIEW BY: Jono Russell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/21/2010
Whether you consider Jamie Cullum’s The Pursuit, his fourth album, a return to form depends on just where you stand on the British jazz-pop pianist. There’s no denying his talent—both as a musician and a songwriter—but for every bit of creative brilliance he’s produced, it’s usually been accompanied by one or more missteps.
Twenty Something was the album that catapulted him to fame (of sorts)—and it was an intriguing, if haphazard, collection of tracks. Only a few originals were present: instead he decided to offer his own take on classics such as “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and “High and Dry.” As you’d expect, the results were somewhat mixed: a friend expressed hatred for the man for daring to “butcher” Radiohead.
Then came Catching Tales. While it still contained covers, the majority of material was from Cullum and, once again, the result was a patchy album. It wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessor, but it did put Cullum’s immense potential as a songwriter on display.
Cullum seemed unsure of just where he fitted in the music industry—and if this album is the result of his search, it was worth the effort, because The Pursuit finds Cullum producing the best material of his career to date. The balance, for once, is just right: eight of the twelve tracks are Cullum’s own, so the album is not based on whether his interpretations are hit or miss.
Opening with Cole Porter’s “Just One Of Those Things,” early signs are this is Cullum back to his roots—the musical experimentation of Catching Tales has been dumped, with the more conventional jazz big-band sound the backdrop for his typically exemplary piano work.
On this album Cullum’s originals seem to be leaning away from the jazz-tinges he infuses his covers with. “I’m All Over It,” a radio-friendly kiss off, is as close to pop as anything Cullum has produced. It certainly contains an infectious hook as he tries to convince himself that he’s “all over it now.” “I can’t say how glad I am about that,” he croons, with his trademark playful rasp to his voice.
“Mixtape” is another highlight. Strategically placed halfway through, it gives the album a much needed lift with its somewhat urgent, driving beat. Some have accused Cullum of being smug in the past (the New York Times labelled him an “unself-conscious lout”) and a glimmer of that shines through here: “I’ll make a mixtape that will charm you into bed,” he vows. That must be some mixtape.
As ever, it’s the covers that will divide opinion. Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” is stripped back with the help of brushes on the snare and an acoustic bass. Having listened to it without looking at the track listing, I was bewildered for a few seconds by what I was hearing. I like the jazzed-up version, complete with mid-song solo, but those partial to the Rihanna original may not be so kind to Cullum.
His treatment of “Not While I’m Around” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is less controversial. Again it has the jazz trio feel to it, though it feels much less of a radical departure from the original—and the piano arrangement adds a melodic beauty to the song not present in Broadway version.
Jamie Cullum is one of those artists you’re either going to love or hate—though I can understand the arguments of both camps. Put it this way: if you’re not feeling any sort of admiration for the man after listening to The Pursuit, I don’t think you ever will.