At some point, James Blunt seized upon the idea of writing songs that make him sound sadder, lonelier and more tormented than the rest of the people in the world. The habit would be far more maddening if he weren’t occasionally quite decent at it.
“All the Lost Souls,” Blunt’s first new album since his 2004 debut “Back to Bedlam” (can it really be 3 years already?), certainly does not lack for morose sentiment. Practically every line the Englishman releases into the microphone with that taut, plaintive voice communicates some combination of longing, angst, dejection, resignation and self-doubt. Such sentiments are, unfortunately, just about par for the course in that stultifying genre of singer-songwriter, which Blunt has been assigned to since square one. And, if the chorus of “Give Me Some Love” is any indication (“Give me some love/ I’ve taken shipload of drugs/ I’m so tired of never fixing the pain”), Blunt has evidently retained his penchant for operatic wallowing.
That said, Blunt is also a man who knows how to craft a streamlined, memorable pop song, even if the listener is forced to put up with his occasionally pedestrian reflections on sobriety, mortality and desire. “All the Lost Souls” is artful in its production, but not arty: rich, but not cloying. Blunt displays (“showcases” would be too strong a word) some mildly impressive instrumental versatility, splitting time on the piano, acoustic guitar, organ and — most surprisingly — steel guitar. True, the album’s 10 tracks offer little sonic deviation from the same brand of stylized anguish that catapulted “You’re Beautiful” to chart success (anyone expecting otherwise should know better), but remarkably, one rarely finds oneself wading through the first three seconds of a song without wanting to hear the rest unfold.
In its cruder moments, of course, “All the Lost Souls” is too transparent in its efforts to satisfy the demand for emotional voyeurism. Any good songwriter is supposed to deal in the currency of feelings, but it’s tough not to feel like a customer at the hands of an experienced shill when Blunt squeezes out lines like these: “Saw the world turning in my sheets and once again I cannot sleep/ …Look at the stars fall down/ And wonder where did I go wrong.”
Then again, there are places on the album where Blunt makes an earnest effort to express some genuine conviction or truth. “I’ll join everyone and understand/ ’Cause all men die. ’Cause all men die,” he sings on “I’ll Take Everything.” It’s not a profound insight, but it is mature — or, at least, it feels like the distillation of something mature. Moments like this may be relatively scarce on “All the Lost Souls,” but on the balance they’re enough to tempt the listener to indulge Blunt’s many maudlin instances of self-affirmation.
What Blunt’s album lacks, in the end, is any real hint of levity or jest against which one might contrast the unremitting angst. And the individual tracks, as catchy and well-crafted as they may be, hardly rise to the level of redeeming this sonic monotony. On “Same Mistake,” Blunt practically invites the listener to identify the flaws of his work: “My mind is muddy but my heart is heavy. Does it show?” It shows, James. It shows indeed.