Gabrielle Aplin – Phosphorescent
I recall a recent conversation I had about artists playing covers, and whether the song or the performance was more important. Surely the point of playing a cover in the first place is to pay homage to a great song, something widely loved and acclaimed? A great artist will be able to do it justice, while a sub-par performance can only undermine a masterpiece so far. However, some of the best covers come from giving otherwise forgotten songs a new lease of life. Taking a deep cut and making it your own with a fresh interpretation, providing a performance so compelling that it elevates the song itself. There’s no right or wrong answer, there’s plenty of examples to support each school of thought, but it was enough to get me thinking. That same principle, strength of songs vs strength of performance, can be applied to the wider world of music, not just covers.
While obviously having a great set of songs and performing them exquisitely is a sure fire way to deliver a great album, I can think of plenty of records worthy of acclaim that have leaned more heavily in one direction or the other. An artist lacking in stage presence can still provide a masterclass in melody and storytelling, and a great performer can transform what would be filler tracks in another’s hands into massive hits.
Pivoting away from the spiritless electropop of 2020’s Dear Happy, at times in favour of a more R&B influenced sound, Phosphorescent is far and away a better batch of tracks than its predecessor. The slow-burning, spaced out groove of opening track ‘Skylight’ is a gorgeous embodiment of the ‘less is more’ philosophy. Full of warmth, with vibrant shifting melodies like the rolling of waves above you while you drift peacefully beneath the surface. The acoustic balladry of ‘Good Enough’ is elevated by its expressive drum work and a charming central melody that rises and twirls like a leaf on the breeze. Piano driven album highlight ‘Mariana Trench’ meanwhile offers some Gabrielle’s best lyricism, delivering a message of resilience in the face of overwhelming darkness and pressure (“Sometimes, I get so low and deep but don’t know if I’m gonna make it, But I remember there’s life down in the darkest places“). All that said, as a whole the record can’t be called her strongest collection of songs thus far. There are certainly more filler tracks here than on her first couple of releases. The overly commercial hook of ‘Never Be The Same’ feels pretty lifeless and impersonal, likewise the repetitive refrain of ‘Anyway’ whose over-produced approach to group vocals squanders what could have been an interesting dash of gospel, and the writing on ‘Wish I Didn’t Press Send’ feels a bit cliché at times.
Where Phosphorescent excels best is not in its songs, but in their delivery. This record consistently delivers some of Gabrielle Aplin’s strongest vocals to date. On the chilled-out R&B of ‘Skylight’ and the grand uplifting chorus of ‘Call Me’ in particular we get to hear her unleash her soulful side. The airy folk that made her name is still present and in fine form, but alongside it she seems to have unlocked newfound depths of warmth and passion in her vocals. Such an unexpected delight, and here’s hoping it’s a side of her artistry we’ll see explored more on future releases.