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Jess Glynne: Always in Between review – earworm everywoman’s ready-meal pop

Glynne is one of the UK’s biggest pop stars and her second album does not mess with the everywoman formula

2 /
5 stars

2 out of 5 stars.

There are artists who ascend to stardom in the traditional blaze of publicity and hype, and there are others who, to borrow the old Peter Cook joke, seem to rise without trace. Consider the case of Jess Glynne, who has spent four years becoming one of the country’s biggest stars. She has had seven No 1 singles, more than any other British female artist in history. Her second album, Always in Between, finds itself launched into a chart that her debut has yet to vacate after 163 weeks. Her music has attained the kind of ubiquity you might have thought impossible in a world atomised by personalised playlists and catch-up TV.

Try as you might, you never seem to be that far from the sound of Rather Be, her 2014 collaboration with Clean Bandit, advertising M&S ready meals, or indeed the sound of her imploring you to not be so hard on yourself blaring from a shop PA. Earlier this year, passengers threatened to boycott the budget airline Jet2 for playing her 2015 hit Hold My Hand incessantly as the background music on its planes: “I’ll walk to Portugal next time,” swore one aggrieved punter.

The question of how Glynne has so gripped the mass imagination is intriguing. It’s certainly not as a result of her scintillating personality and unearthly charisma. A recent music mag Q&A revealed so little of interest that the writer had to go with “I like baked beans” as a gripping opening quote. In fact, Glynne may represent the apotheosis of the bizarre 2000s compulsion for pop stars not to embody a world more glamorous, exciting, strange and suggestive than your own, but to be as ordinary as possible. Indeed, if the appeal of Ed Sheeran to teenage fans is that he seems like a mate’s older brother, just back from a gap year with tales of how sick Goa is, then Glynne’s appears to involve resembling the same mate’s older sister, who’s recently got a job as an estate agent and moved into a house-share in Hendon.

Clearly her success is founded in her music, which brings us to Always in Between, an album understandably not minded to mess much with a proven formula. Something about the melody of I’ll Be There ineffably recalls the melody of Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself. And no one’s ever going to complain about the lack of songs with the ooh-wah ooh-ooh-oohing that propelled Hold My Hand to the top. You’re waist-deep in ay-yey-yey-yeahs and ooh-woo-woos throughout. For all the contemporary sonic gimmicks familiar from the Top 40 – from tropical house synths to vaguely gospel-ish massed backing vocals, to an acoustic guitar-driven track you can tell has been made in the image of the aforementioned Sheeran, not least because it’s been co-written by Sheeran – something quite old-fashioned lurks at its centre.

At one extreme, it’s influenced by classic soul, heavy on the blaring brass – not so much Amy Winehouse as her less emotionally wrenching predecessor Joss Stone – and, at the other, undemanding dance-pop topped by an immediately recognisable voice, the same idea that garnered M-People vast success 20 years ago. Its best moments are what a Hendon estate agent would call “finished to a high standard”. The closing ballad Nevermind works up a genuinely powerful head of steam and the melody of 123 doesn’t need to be played incessantly at you on a plane to take up residence in your brain.

At its least distinctive, it whizzes in one ear and out of the other at such speed that you wonder if it might not prove those conspiracy theories about the deleterious effect of streaming services on pop: that people are now deliberately writing the most unobtrusive songs possible so that listeners with a Spotify playlist burbling in the background aren’t startled into hitting fast forward. You register that it’s Glynne singing – to her credit, she’s worked out that you don’t need to go bananas with melisma to make your voice stand out – and that’s about it.

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The words either opt for the old disco trick of playing musical euphoria off against lyrical heartbreak, or trade on her everywoman persona. She’s moved to tell someone how she feels about them “because I’ve had a few”. Romantic despair leads to the donning of sweatpants and a night in with a tin of premixed gin and tonic. You can see why people relate to it, you can tell it’s going to be huge: it is what pop is in 2018, but the feeling that pop can be something rather more than this is hard to shake.

This week Alexis listened to

Garden City Movement – Foreign Affair
I only just discovered Garden City Movement’s debut album Apollonia – it came out in March – but it’s fantastic: a strange and wonderful stew of house, experimental electronics and blue-eyed soul, as demonstrated here.

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