Jamie Cullum prizes subverting expectations.
Jamie Cullum prizes subverting expectations. As a songwriter and vivacious live performer, he consistently evades labels, a classic crooner one moment, a backflipping showman another. Praised as a jazz wunderkind on his first record, his deviations into electronic and pop music has garnered him as much praise from fans as it has scorn from the traditional jazz community. Altogether, anyone accusing Cullum of selling out and treading on popular sounds for commercial gain isn’t genuinely listening. Jazz is his foundation, but he’s a wickedly talented modern songwriter, re-interpreter and performer through and through. Genre is a game to Cullum, and Taller is simply the next step of his evolution.
The title track packs a slow groove with programmed beats and horn samples, exuding confidence and swagger without sounding overproduced or hollow. The chorus refrain of “I wish I was taller/ I wish I was wiser” adds a new dimension, an oddly insecure sentiment packed into a bombastic studio-born experience. Centering the theme of the record on this track tells you all you need to know: he has the talent and resources to knock out another record, but he’s still searching for something just out of reach.
“Mankind” introduces gospel elements with smooth organ chords and angelic background vocals, thick in orchestration but not overstuffed. The song’s shining chorus and lyrical optimism–looking on the brighter side of humanity–makes everything sound appropriate, not forced or overwrought. “Monster” trades in the same spirit, laying down a warm, reverb-laced throwback vibe, but the talent in the songwriting feels timeless.
Songwriting talent is invaluable, but the magic of studio experimentation plays a special role in a musician’s progress. Melody, harmony and rhythm all have their place, but as Cullum’s Song Society series demonstrates, there are scores of ways to arrange a tune. While “Usher” packs an airtight baritone sax groove, the “Get me a time machine!” shouts and processed kalimba solo on the bridge sounds a little too far out. Ample studio time means more room for sonic experimentation, but it also opens up the possibility of pushing things a little too far.
On an album of introspection, “The Age of Anxiety” feels like the most personal, and curious, track. Cullum comments on a handful of matters, from personal relevance (“Is my career gonna reignite?”) and masculinity (“Are you a man before your father dies?/ But what’s a man these days? I hear you cry”) to left-right identity politics (“See all the virtue signalers tonight/ I want that bandwagon to pass me by”). The chorus resolves in solace: so long as you have someone, things all are not lost: “I hold onto you/ And you hold onto me/ Tiny victory/ In the age of anxiety”. In the outro he sings “I hope the band won’t make me sing along”, but he does indeed join the children’s chorus as the track begins its fade out. Unfocused? Subversion? It’s a fine pop song, so does the answer even matter?
This is the thing that matters about Cullum’s musical trajectory now; he’s a pop/jazz singer in a vein separated from the Michael Bublé crooner crowd. Most jazz standards started as pop songs and Broadway numbers, tunes intended for mass consumption on a commercial scale. Cullum unabashedly embraces his jazz and funk influences, but he’s not interested in catering to a purist audience. He simply does what all songwriters aspire to do: distill influences without sounding pastiche or derivative.