Jamie Lidell has built his career upon surprising people, whether via his on-stage antics, sudden stylistic shifts, or cryptic interviews. But the biggest twist to his third album, Jim, might just be its lack of left turns. Jim isn’t quite Lidell’s Sea Change, but it’s close, and not only because the singer and producer recently toured and recorded with Beck. Despite a few uptempo rockers, the album is generally subdued; its perspective is almost confessional.

On the surface a collection of love songs, Jim remains obsessed with the themes of emotional imbalance, self-doubt, and dual identity that Lidell introduced on 2005’s Multiply. Building on the blueprint drafted for that album, Jim deepens the singer’s engagement with 1960s and 70s r&b across a carefully crafted set of ballads, rave-ups, and easygoing soul, showing off not only his considerable vocal chops but also the songwriting and studio prowess of his longtime collaborators Gonzales and Mocky. (Co-producer Mocky shares songwriting credits on virtually all the album’s songs; Gonzales had a hand in two, and the Tower Recordings’ collaborator Andre Vida, responsible for Multiply’s horns, is credited on one.)

Given Lidell’s past provocations, Jim’s spoonful of sugar will likely disorient some fans. But thick with hooks and Hammonds, funk squelch and background doo-wop, Jim nevertheless makes for some of the most satisfying Sunday-morning listening you’ll hear this year. That Gonzalez and Mocky also played significant roles in the creation of Feist’s The Reminder shouldn’t be surprising. (Lidell appeared on that album as well: he sings and is credited as “Energy Arranger” on “So Sorry”.) For all Lidell’s background in the trenches of the rave scene and its experimental aftermath, Jim is unabashedly pop in spirit and feel-good in sound.

After Lidell’s abrasive first record, 2000’s Muddlin’ Gear and the avant-funk he concocted in the duo Super_Collider (with Chilean-English techno veteran Cristian Vogel), Multiply’s sparkling keyboards, taut electric funk, and rattling tambourines often earned accusations of pastiche. That wasn’t always far off: The album’s songwriting, production and vocal delivery are deeply indebted to the soul tradition from Stax to Motown, Prince to D’Angelo. With its plucked bass and careful treble counterpoints, “Multiply”, a song about the joys of a split personality, sounds almost like a repurposed “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”.

That combination of subject matter and source material ought to have been enough to undercut the charges that Multiply tried too hard to be “authentic,” but it wasn’t. You can find a typical criticism in Andy Kellman’s review for Allmusic.com, where he calls the album “as authentic as any neo-soul release”– a faint-praise damnation that makes “authenticity” sound positively counterfeit– and complains that “there’s so much overly earnest, reverential, ‘let’s get back to making real music’ energy floating around that you can sense it nibbling away at the desire to make something that sounds like today.”

If anything, there’s even more pastiche on Jim, but that never stops the music from sounding relevant. (Part of Jim’s pleasure is that it doesn’t sound terribly concerned about the sound of “today.”) The rollicking “Where D’You Go” is an exercise in sock-hopping 50s rock’n’roll. “Out of My System” burns a hole through the back of James Brown’s cloak. “Hurricane” could almost be a White Stripes song, if they spent more time listening to the Meters and less with Led Zep.

“Out of My System” is even more shameless in its borrowings, opening with a riff stolen from Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and closing with railroad-whistle chants straight out of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”. (The reference to the latter act– as well as the “Sheriff”-covering Eric Clapton– serves as a useful reminder that Lidell is hardly the first white, English artist to find inspiration in African-American musical traditions.)

Indeed, after listening to the heavily acoustic, era-faithful Jim, Multiply begins to sound like more of an “electronic” release than ever before. For all its debt to American soul forebears, the album was riddled with clever edits, digital effects, and transient random noise bursts. Jim may have been recorded in Berlin, Paris, and L.A., but its natural reverbs and warm room tones sound more intimate than that jetsetting might suggest. On Jim, the “experimental” bits are folded more deeply into the whole.

A few minutes into “Little Bit of Feel Good”, there’s an ambient blues bridge where the soloing saxophone takes a weird modal leap; build out a loop of that and you might have the basis for a Rune Grammofon release. But by and large, the outré moments have been toned down and blended in, as with the drifting electronic touches of “Figure Me Out”. Far more unified than Multiply, the album has a satisfyingly cohesive arc, although the comparatively banging “Out of My System” and “Hurricane” may well get left off of the make-out music playlists inspired by more Al Green-influenced fare like “Green Light”.

Jim might be far less interesting were it not for the ambiguities that Lidell brings to the table. His turn towards the personal is right there in the title; the press release goes so far as to declare, “Jamie is Jim.” But it’s never so easy with Lidell. He’s a notoriously slippery artist straddling two scenes– underground electronic-music subculture and indie hegemony– obsessed with authenticity and distrustful of ambition. It’s never clear whether Jim is also Jamie, or whether the titular character is just that, a character– Lidell’s Jim Shady, perhaps.

Most of the songs on Jim are sung in second person, but Lidell’s lyrical declarations cut in unpredictable ways. “Another Day”, in which he sings of searching for “another day/ Another way for me to open up to you” might just be a love song, like a good half of the album’s 10 tracks. But when he sings, “I used to scream when a whisper would do,” it’s hard not to be reminded of Lidell’s rep as a belter and a noisemaker, and wonder if he’s not addressing the conspicuous mellowing of his sound.

But ultimately, such biographical bits are probably of the greatest interest to lit-crit schooled music reviewers and potential stalkers. Jim succeeds by virtue of its polish. The record sounds simply wonderful: alternately nubby and spangled, it’s like a cashmere throw that turns intermittently into a showman’s cape. Lidell’s voice has never sounded better than it does here.

With his mellifluous melismas and effortless fillips, he’s as captivating here as his sweat-soaked, seat-of-his-pants Doppelganger is on stage, just for different reasons. Three years ago, reviewing Lidell’s chaotic live set, Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal wrote that “Lidell’s focus on his ancillary musical wares– and not his main-stage voice– seemed to demonstrate that his popular crooner persona may just be a seriously enjoyable excursion rather than a nostalgic destination.” From the Bacharach-inspired kitsch of “Another Day” to the touches of Nick Drake on the closing “Rope of Sand”, Jim now suggests otherwise: This is an album by an artist getting comfortable with his softer side. It’s another welcome surprise.

Jim is, I suggest, Lidell’s most accessible album.

It is,” he sighs. “I wanted to make it commercial just as an experiment. My ideal audience is people who appreciate that I’m not just a singer, but some people just want to go out and have a nice night with some nice music and I totally understand that.”

The album is a reflection of his mellower, Dr Jekyll side, which is not to say that Mr Hyde won’t make an appearance when Lidell embarks on next month’s UK tour. “When I’m tired or frustrated with myself, I tend to make a lot of noise in shows,” he admits with a wry grin. “F*** everyone! Listen to this, bastards – it’s gonna hurt! I need to cleanse myself.” What kind of things get his goat?

“Everything, from people pushing into a queue to really substantial problems: where am I going? Am I doing the right thing with my life? Am I going to die?”

The tension between science and art, soul-searching and melody-making, would appear to stretch back to Lidell’s childhood in Perry, a village just outside Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. His mother, a classical singer, would trill around the house; his father, a psychologist, was “a very cerebral man” who “always seemed to know everything”. Also looming large in Lidell’s formative years was Prince, whose music taught him that synths and soul were not mutally exclusive. His education continued at Bristol University, where he studied the cosmic combination of physics and philosophy and revelled in the golden era of Massive Attack et al.

After a stint in Brighton, where he began a longstanding collaboration with South Coast electro hero Cristian Vogel, Lidell moved to Berlin and set about finding a USP. He took a year out to programme his own software and developed an innovative way of working, which involved sampling his voice on a loop pedal and building tracks live, entirely from those samples. “Now everybody’s got a loop pedal,” he sniffs. “Nice, but I was doing that seven years ago. Did that go completely unnoticed?”

For his live appearances Lidell has recently started playing with a band because “when TV shows ask me on I can’t go up there and do it solo”. When he appeared on Later…, he got round the problem by duetting with Jools Holland, a decision he now regrets. “He’s a nice geezer, but I should have gone on there and blown everyone’s minds with some solo shit.” He still seems unconvinced about the merits of a band: “I can hear a band playing and think, Christ, I hate bands. But here I am singing with a bunch of guys.”

He needn’t fret, though, because the new live set-up works like a dream, the band providing a foil for their gawkily charismatic frontman and his Little Richard moves. And Lidell is always free to embark on his solitary detours: “If I’m not down with the way a song sounds with the band, I’ll go, f*** this: I’m doing this one solo with all my machines.”

The whole business is “a constant battle for me”, he admits with a wonky smile. But that, you suspect, is how he likes it. “I don’t like to be secure.” Hence his imminent move from Berlin to Paris: “There’s something about being exotic and being on the outside that I thrive on. I like to be the underdog, it helps me creatively.” I’m looking forward to seeing him live next month, I tell him. He grins: “Hopefully, you’ll see a new me.” What, yet another one?

click below to listen

JAMIE LIDELL – Figured Me Out


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