As a vocalist, Jamie Lidell has always felt of the wrong era. Wedged between the 90s neosoul resurgence and throwback retro-funk of the 2010s, Lidell’s sound was obsessed with 1960s soul records and 1980s post-disco long before its pop ubiquity, yet it still often lumped together with similar 2010s R&B crooners. 2005’s Multiply was a studied collection of the smooth tones and throaty hooks of a James Brown doppelganger, christening every Rhodes chord with a biting vocal pull. His 2013 self-titled release with Warp saw the vocalist lean in on a brand of tight, hi-fi future-funk somewhere between a Gorge Clinton and Quincy Jones production. Tracks like “Big Love” and “Do Yourself a Favor” could easily pass for Thriller B-sides if it weren’t for the album’s eerie consistency; it was good in all the ways a three-minute hook can be, but seven tracks in, that much repetitive pop can only sustain so much feeling.
Building a Beginning finds Lidell receding from 80s perfectionism, embracing a slow soul sound more akin to earlier releases. Again a student of historical forms, Lidell channels disco’s softest moments, leaning on a Mellotron lushness to craft ballads with a surprising adeptness; “I Live to Make You Smile” might just be the sincerest moment from the songwriter to date, nodding a bit perhaps to John Legend’s “Ordinary People” but still planting itself with refreshing roots, while “I Stay Inside” haunts with the remnants of Brian Eno’s work with Coldplay, touched with soft horns and snare rolls that keep things self-contained.
The whole release comes across with a certain self-assuredness in its precision that, while a refreshing departure from the overzealous synthplay of Jamie Lidell, still only ever amounts to easy listening. On “Motionless,” Lidell echoes the whitewashed gospel of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” as he meditates on spiritual absence, an apt metaphor for much of the album’s flaccid trajectory. Others like “In Love and Alone” and “Julian” could easily pass for songs from Emile Haynie or Tobias Jesso Jr., as well as an interchangeable mix of other sullen producers who pull life into historicized sounds with a glib inoffense. Worst of all, “How Did I Live Before Your Love” babbles with an episodic sitar intro before lurching into some semblance of dub or reggae that’s undoubtedly worse than most Jason Mraz songs.
Building a Beginning takes to heart every criticism of his 2013 release, inverting it into something that, though restrained and even surprisingly heartfelt at times, does very little to save itself from being forgotten. At a time when pop is still so overwhelmingly saturated with the golden years of every era, Lidell still struggles to move beyond the refined banalities we’ve gotten with Adele, Sam Smith, or a million other lackluster pop performers. For an alleged new beginning, the record only trades up in affect, swapping synths and drum machines for swaths of 1960s soul that, even with considerable musical virtuosity, only ever amounts to flattened pleasantries.