Cullum sounds like someone else on most of the album, a fatal flaw for an artist who usually puts so much energy into being different.
Jamie Cullum is the oddball of the modern jazz world. Sometimes he’s a traditionalist, crooning Cole Porter covers and laying down silky piano solos. And then there are the times he’s covering Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix or Jeff Buckley. His voracious appetite for as many genres as he can grab might be his defining feature, and it certainly helped him in the past. Just check out his 2003 album, Twentysomething, which held the aforementioned covers and a gleaming set of more standard tunes, all of them clicking together thanks to Cullum’s slightly screwy charisma. Unfortunately, Interlude finds that genre gluttony a crutch.
It’s not that Cullum’s talent has gone down the drain, he’s still the simmering band leader with a keen ear for melody he always was. His voice is simultaneously smoky and boyish, giving him the ability to pull off seduction or innocence on a dime. It’s more funny than jarring to hear Cullum flip between the two as the album goes on. The opening creeping-crawl of the title track has Cullum smoldering away in his lower register over jagged horns and sinister drums. It’s only two songs later that he’s gasping in awe on “The Seer’s Tower” (yup that “The Seer’s Tower,” as in the Sufjan Stevens tune). “Good Morning Heartache” (a duet with Laura Mvula) finds a nice, somber balance with Cullum following painful memories of a lost love with a bit of a smirk, but even more sorrow.
What’s missing here is Cullum’s usual skill with composition, turning standards and curveballs into his own. There’s some spark lacking in these songs. “Walkin,’” “Don’t You Know” and “Lovesick Blues” are the worst of the lot, with Cullum attempting to channel his inner-bluesman and failing. He’s had blistering songs in the past, (like the title track from Twentysomething) but even those songs had a sense of fun to them, like Cullum was jumping over his piano as he launched his complaints against the world. Interlude’s subpar moments are perfunctory, like Cullum was convinced he needed to put a bluesy song here on principle. “Sack O’ Woe” just comes off as silly, with its jaunty groove that doesn’t quite mesh with Cullum’s showy vocals. Some of the slower songs also come off as filler. “Losing You” and “Make Someone Happy” hold ground that Cullum has tread far too many times. West Side Story-esque cords, pained lyrics and stark production values only get you so far if you haven’t revealed your trick before.
Interlude is particularly frustrating because Cullum does show off his arrangement chops in a few key moments. “My One and Only Love” swirls and swoons wonderfully thanks to an expert string arrangement that cocoons Cullum’s piano playing. “Out of this World,” which has Cullum describing his lover as a “fairytale I read when I was so high,” is a little cheeky, but it makes sense next to the bossa-nova-ish vibe and swelling strings. “The Seer’s Tower” goes down as one of Cullum’s finest covers; it’s stark, but holds tension in the quiet moments thanks to jittery piano and drum work rushing under Cullum’s vulnerable vocals.
Interlude holds enough great songs to reassure that Cullum’s still a unique voice in modern jazz, but it’s made of far too many tangents of normalcy. Hopefully Interlude is just that, a break from Cullum’s solid track record. Quite simply, Cullum sounds like someone else on most of the album, a fatal flaw for an artist who usually puts so much energy into being different.