A few years back I received a demo tape from Tom Odell, sent while he was a student at BIMM, hawking his wares, looking for interest. Totally unknown then, but eager to make his way, it was only a matter of two or three years before he had become a name, troubling the music mags with his piano-driven balladry, some of whom thought it abominable, with the NME notoriously giving his debut album 0/10. This didn’t stop him becoming a minor star, said album reaching number one in the charts, his face and music everywhere for a while. Odell was the fresh faced 21st century beacon for lovers of piano-led soft rock balladry, a al Elton John.
Jubilee Road is his third album and, while he may not have quite capitalised on his early success, Odell proves himself once more to be a serious musician, one who has earned his stripes via hard work, perseverance, and a natural affinity with the art and craft of songwriting and performing. Moreover, he has thrown off the shackles of polished production in seeking a rawer, more honest ‘live’ sound, with the help of ex-Razorlight drummer and songwriter Andy Burrows, and guitarist pal Max Clilverd.
“Joy tinged with melancholy”, is how Odell puts it, and there is a loose concept that permeates throughout Jubilee Road that, married to this basic idea, is the recipe for a largely successful work. Like his previous album, Wrong Crowd, which focussed on the trials and tribulations of youthfulness, Odell casts an eye over his immediate neighbourly environment, as well as within himself and close family. Jubilee Road is named after a real place in London where he lived, looking out of the window, and writing songs loosely about the characters in this street, and mixing that up with allusions to his own life, interwoven with imagination and dreaming.
For the most part, Jubilee Road is classic piano-led melodic balladry, with lyrics about failed and broken relationships alongside those about wrestling with stardom, and lost and unfulfilled souls that litter his landscape. However, increasingly Odell ventures away from over-wrought despair and lingering melancholy, although this is a feature here and there, such as on the excellent ‘You’re Gonna Break My Heart Tonight’. Instead, he and his band vamp it up for the most part, despite the tear-stained lyricism. Such as on the bouncy big chord piano bashing ‘Go Tell Her Now’ (bookended by what sounds like an audio reference to his early open mic days, polite smattering of applause etc), the celebratory mid-temp piano rocker ‘If You Wanna Love Somebody’, and the confusingly celebratory ‘Son of an Only Child’, which features 70s-style glam guitar, gospel bvs, and brass. On the only duet here, with Alice Merton, on the brash and grand balladry of ‘Half as Good as You’, two heartbroken souls don’t over-egg the pudding in their despair, instead once again infusing their predicament with a pleasing, old school life-affirming stoicism.
While he can over-cook the music and the passion on occasion, such as on the strutting Wham! ‘I’m Your Man’-inspired ‘China Dolls’, he can also all too frequently reach for the hackneyed metaphors, such as on the Elton John-esque ‘Queen of Diamonds’, full of card playing allegories, as he winds his way down this well worn path of throwing one’s life away whilst dreaming of the unattainable. However, throughout there are knowing allusions to his own life, such as the title track, which sets the scene for the album: “And the neighbours, my dear / I think they still hate me / For all these songs I endlessly sing”.
Yes, some neighbours may hate him with an irrationality bordering on the lunatic, but Odell is past all that now. As one who ventured wholeheartedly into the open mic cauldron when learning his craft, he can withstand life’s slings and arrows, letting his compassionate and humane soul win us over.