In dark times, unabashedly positive music can offer a welcome respite.
“Took it in turns to dream about the lottery/ And what we might have done/ If we had entered and had won/ We’re each convinced that nothing would have changed.” So goes “Pretty Shining People.” By all accounts, George Ezra hit the lottery when his debut album, Wanted on Voyage, featuring hit song “Budapest,” went on to become the third best-selling album of 2014. His trademark baritone made him stand out in the midst of a wave of folk resurgence in the charts. His follow-up Staying at Tamara’s, then, is poised to reveal exactly how that attention affected Ezra and his music. The English singer confessed to having attempted to hew as closely as possible to the recording process of his debut; the few differences instead lie in Ezra’s writing and the upbeat energy of the final product.
Recorded in the same studio with producer Cam Blackwood and writing partner Joel Pott (formerly of Athlete), Staying at Tamara’s would seem to show Ezra sticking to the tried and true, taking baby steps forward in his career instead of opting for everything bigger and better. The most indulgent aspect of Ezra’s writing process here is the location he chose to inspire catchy melodies and lyrics: an Airbnb in Barcelona owned by the titular Tamara. Even so, the album ultimately reflects Ezra’s modest progression in its richer sound, featuring more instrumentation (that brass on “Don’t Matter Now” and “Get Away,” one of the most upbeat songs ever written about anxiety) and more dynamic vocals. Overall, it is an exceedingly positive album with endless summery pop hits (“Shotgun,” “Paradise” and “Sugarcoat” with its island marimbas).
While Wanted on Voyage had the rollicking feel of foot-stomping folk-pop like Mumford & Sons at times, as well as glimpses of the soulfulness of a Ray Lamontagne, it was a more introspective effort overall from the then-19-year-old. Staying at Tamara’s, in contrast, has a surplus of anthemic pop tracks well-suited to music festivals. Take the coos from “Budapest” and multiply them by 10. “Pretty Shining People” opens the new album on unabashed pop, but the message behind the lyrics is empty, the uplifting lyrics supported by nothing but the enthusiasm of the backing vocalists. Even while referring to this as a “terrible time to be alive,” the kumbaya chorus makes it a cloying track. The carefree “Don’t Matter Now” carries on this ode to a positive outlook, complete with party revelers’ chiming in with doo-doo-dos on the chorus.
But especially in dark times, unabashedly positive (albeit hollow) music can offer a welcome respite. Given that Staying at Tamara’s is a more or less wall-to-wall summer bash, Ezra will likely see good traction with the likes of Afro-influenced beach-cruiser “Shotgun” and the love song “Paradise.” Even the unpresuming late-album track “All My Love” has radio potential as a ‘50s-esque sweet love song with slide guitar riffs. A track like “Saviour,” however, is more eager to show its bluegrass and country roots and may have been a poor choice for a single, even with guest vocalists First Aid Kit.
While this sophomore effort shows a desire to expand beyond folky guitar to incorporate numerous musical influences—and successfully executes this plan—Ezra’s songwriting comes up short. His expressive voice is ideal for delivering memorable stories, so it’s ultimately disappointing when he chooses to sing, “Deep sea diving round the clock/ Bikini bottoms, lager tops/ I could get used to this.” Let’s hope we don’t get used to this sugary pop version of George Ezra, but if it’s what sells, can we blame him?