Tag Archives: jamie cullum

Jamie Cullum – Taller

14 Jun

When I first discovered Jamie Cullum in the late 2000s, he had already recorded five studio albums, and was playing in jazz festivals around the world. And while he was the kind of musician who brought his grandmother’s carpet to lay out on the stage at Blenheim Palace, he was also full of irreverent energy: stomping his feet on the keys of the piano, slapping his palms all over and underneath it, jumping on top of it and leaping off. His vigour was electrifying, and even deeply moving for a reserved person such as myself.

The Pursuit (2009) marks a neat halfway point between the start of his career and now, and it was in the album that followed in 2013 that I first began to hear creeping hints of self-doubt and insecurity:

As I sit and wait for some answers
The questions go round like a kamikaze pilot
Enlightenment’s just a romancer
I wish it were here burning brightly through the skylight .

Family life seemed to bring a new introspective quality to Cullum’s music. It’s not easy to slow down and take stock, to critically examine the costs and rewards of a glamorous profession in the arts, and to confront the fear of failure.

“Innocence is nice, but the world offers us more and it’s wrong not to take it.” As we grow older, so many of us feel that we have irrevocably lost our access to uninhibited creativity and joy. But the complications of being an adult unlock an unfamiliar kind of happiness, and an emotional depth we could never have imagined in innocence. The chords behind the crescendo of “Drink” conjure up with great accuracy the vertiginous relief and fear that accompany the first sensation of joy after a long unhappiness.

But the cheeky musician we’ve known is still around, and he announces it in the title of his latest album. Taller marks a milestone in a twenty-year-long career in jazz music. A bold, effervescent, and unceasingly fun artist now stands at the sobering brink of his forties; and the music inspired at this juncture is nothing short of a gift to everyone who has followed his work over the years.

Jamie Cullum is a small, if dynamic, man, and there has been no dearth of leg-pulling in the tabloids and on the internet about his height, and about his marriage to a substantially taller woman. The fact that he addresses this perceived deficiency head-on indicates that he hasn’t lost his sense of humour, and also that the discontent that has been simmering in the previous two albums will be explored more fully in this one.

“Usher”, the fourth track on the album, is a full-blown sonic party reminiscent in the best way of James Brown and the golden age of Soul. It’s crunchy and granular in a way that is profoundly satisfying (especially if you, like me, have been unable to avoid Trap and American R&B, the slickness of which, though often soothing, can quickly lose your interest). But the lyrics are not quite as cheerful as the music. And it’s a similar story with “You Can’t Hide Away From Love”, another favourite from the album: its lush orchestral arrangement recalls Audrey Hepburn movies, but with menace.

It’ll give you two black eyes
And discolour all your skies

It’ll have you on your back
And break into your flat

So reel me in
Till I’m gasping for air;
There’s no love without despair

It’ll shake you to your core
And leave you crying on the floor
But I’m telling you you can’t hide away from love.

This album examines not only personal demons, but also shared anxieties. Volume 2 of The Eighty-Eight, “an adventurous magazine for the occasional thinker” (or “an occasional magazine for the adventurous thinker”), which Cullum puts together with his friends and family, features a poignant essay about his Indian and Burmese heritage. More than one song on Taller references Brexit, the refugee crisis, British imperialism, and perhaps even the Me Too movement.

Cullum dwells on the unease of living in these times. There’s a stripped down version of “Mankind” on his YouTube channel well worth a listen. The irony of this composition is that it combines gospel music with lyrics that say “so long to sacred,” but there is a refusal to give up on people and the idea that love will conquer all. As Kristin Scott Thomas’ character in Fleabag puts it, “people are all we’ve got.”

This album is an exploration of fundamentals, and Cullum sings repeatedly of digging and searching deep within the earth. One cannot help but think of Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging, and the hope and doubt it expresses about writing and creative work as activities that productively uncover and reveal. “The Age of Anxiety” quotes WH Auden (“only love is what survives of us”), and imbues the song with its apprehension of mortality.

Age of Anxiety, Live from Craxton Studios

Cullum’s interest literature and great works of poetry (his favourite writers are Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster) is perhaps what gives his lyrics their unusual and beguiling quality.

The fact that he has always been an expressive vocalist only makes this better; and speaking of vocals, “Monster” showcases a falsetto range we’ve never heard from him before.

Literary inspirations aside, Cullum draws from an eclectic range of musical sources. For a few years now he has been reverse-engineering pop music on his YouTube playlist The Song Society, and curating more challenging compositions for his program “The Jazz Show” on BBC Radio 2. It’s fascinating to see these influences coming together to form an album that sounds — fittingly for a crossover artist — unique, and one that does not sit comfortably in either the pop or the jazz genre.

The great thing about the songs on this album is that they’re more than just tunes. Each song develops; it meanders into different moods and colours and tones. If you were to leave a song midway, you’d probably miss the best part, and definitely miss the whole story. The album requires, and rewards, patience. This is the kind of art I find myself most grateful for these days.

Taller is an invitation to revisit Jamie Cullum’s oeuvre; because the seeds of inventiveness and thoughtfulness were always there. I’ve been rediscovering the deluxe version of Catching Tales, for instance, with its cover of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine”, which is a youthful, groovier expression of “Drink”, the backbone of the new album. I am so excited to dip back in to this amazing body of work. There is no doubt about it: Jamie Cullum is a peerless and towering talent.

By Eesha Kumar

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