When it comes to Tom Odell’s fourth album, Monsters, it’s very likely that listeners will find themselves wondering if context does indeed inform musical creation, to a degree. The reason for that is simple: as soon as stylus a sinks into the A-side of Monsters and “Numb” opens it, an image of Ed Kowalczyk (the once-and-again singer of York, PA’s Live – for the unfamiliar) in a very distressed or genuinely unhappy place, but a place where he is also unable to summon his trademark frenetic bark on the mic. Now, given that that sound is usually the thing Kowalczyk uses to scare up energy in his songs and such implements are absent here, listeners being in for an extended, emotional rumination feels like a foregone conclusion – but what makes both Monsters and Odell succeed here is the fact that the singer leans into his dynamic of choice and makes it work with him instead of trying to scream over it or play against it. Simply said, like Thom Yorke has been known to do before, Tom Yorke sings at length about loss and disappointment, but makes the music a sympathetic partner to the act rather than an obstacle that it must try to overcome. These songs don’t work against Odell’s sad tones, they reliably support them.
Those unfamiliar with Tom Odell’s work might be skeptical at how good (and not horribly depressing) such a sound could possibly be, but trust me, reader – I was skeptical too, but it didn’t take long for Monsters to completely win me over.
As stated, “Numb” doesn’t exactly open Monsters on the single strongest note but, as “Over You Yet” follows that introduction with a more pop-infused permutation of the same formula (lines like “Making lots of money and behaving like a star/ Singing every night is what I do best/ Drink a little more and I care a little less” follow the same thematic thread as “Numb,” the beat and the song’s far glossier production instantly make the song register as brighter and more jubilant), and it still somehow begins to feel as though its changing. Suddenly, the drive bears more promise in spite of the obviously down and depressed pall of “Over You Yet,” and the transition is complete as Odell worries about his finances in “Money,” but somehow manages to inject the heart of it with a healthy dose of pop – thereby resetting the song from what could have been a perfectly average, Radiohead-inspired snore to something which feels completely fresh and new.
After the “Money” transition, listeners may find themselves completely turned around on Monsters, as the A-side continues. After “Money,” Odell comes startlingly close to writing a classic pop song in the tradition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” with “Tears That Never Dry,” and then offers up “Monster v.2” – a very dry cut which will still hypnotize any fan of the listening experiences that the soundtracks from Grey’s Anatomy offered (and then does the same thing with “Lockdown,” as well). The A-side ends with “Lose You Again,” which spontaneously augments the sound as it was established so far in this running by focusing more closely on piano for accompaniment. It is a pretty song which fits very well with the overall tone of the side; the over-arching sentiment in the cut is that things are improving (although what exactly is getting better remains vague) and will have listeners completely filled with warmth when the song closes out. The needle lifts then and will have listeners rushing to flip the record over in hopes of keeping the sound and sentiments spinning on the B-side.
…And keeping the energy that Tom Odell first lined up for listeners on Monsters‘ A-side is exactly what “Fighting Fire With Fire” does to open the flip-side – although not in exactly the same way that listeners might expect. Rather, as “Fighting Fire With Fire” sputters its way to life with some hard-panning percussive effects, digitally-effected vocals and a surprising, politically-identified lyric sheet(which notes the rogues gallery of “climate deniers and well-bred liars,” among others), listeners may feel as though the lead-off cut for the side works as a change in pace and demeanor for Monsters (which is further pushed by the thirty-second blip that follows it which is entitled “Problems”) – but the side migrates right back to the centre that Monsters‘ A-side established with “Me and My Friend.” There, Odell almost playfully invites listeners to come down the rabbit hole with he and his friends (who never get named) amid some great chirping, burbling effects masquerading as a beat and ape an idea which comes pretty close to feeling poppy – as as long as one chooses to ignore lines like, “People look at us and feel so bad/ If they knew, they wouldn’t be so sad.”
The unusual (but blessedly brief) experiments with form and style continue through “Country Star” (which would run a very valid risk of derailing the well-established form and structure of the album – were it more than a minute and a half in length) and the sort of Leonard Cohen-esque piano balladry of “By This Time Tomorrow,” but make it back to the form that listeners have come to expect with “Streets of Heaven” and the tear-jerking atmospherics which accompany it. The transition back into Odell’s form of choice is a little difficult to follow – of that, there is no question – but it does certainly feel right and everything really has the chance to come into focus when “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” cross-wires the poppy experimentation of the B-side with the more singer-songwriterly forms of the A-.
And, after showing another (better) version of the album’s title track, the needle lifts and Monsters ends. Standing back from it, those who have run front to back with the album will rightly be able to point at portions of the running which stand out as being both great and representative of Tom Odell’s great songwriting faculties, but also recognize some of the bits in the running which need further refinement – particularly refining and keeping a consistent tone. Some fans/supporters will scoff and complain that such commentary is over-critical, and such undying appreciation is valid among fans for this release – but fans will also be able to say that while this release is great, it should not be Tom Odell’s final one. After Monsters, the hope will definitely be for more music and it will definitely be interesting to see where the singer’s muse takes him. [Bill Adams]
Monsters is out now. Buy it here on Amazon.