Album Review: Jamie Cullum, “Momentum” (2013)

Jamie Cullum first came out the gate in 2003, marketing himself as a modern jazz artist. I was a fan right from the start; I fell in love with Cullum’s updated brand of jazz, his quietly reflective lyrics, and his exuberant live performances (many of which resulted in him breaking whatever piano he was performing on that night from banging on the keys too hard). Through the years, I have followed Cullum’s career ardently, purchasing all of his albums, and seeing him live in concert (which was honestly the best concert I’ve ever attended). I’ve spent the last four years (im)patiently awaiting his sixth studio album.

Momentum was released this May, and surprised me a bit during the first listen. I immediately noticed that I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as a”jazz” album. While Cullum’s previous efforts have been pretty jazz-heavy (particularly his first three, which contained many covers of jazz standards), this is easily the most mainstream of all- rock, pop, hip-hop and soul songs have taken up the majority of the music on the album. Production from Jim Abbiss (Artic Monkeys, Adele) and Dan The Automator (Kasabian, DJ Shadow) have likely lead to the change in sound, but Cullum still sits at the helm of the album’s overall production and songwriting, and the result is a sturdy album, indicative of his growth as both an artist and person.

Snappy number, The Same Things, opens the album and is one of the jazziest songs on the disc. The hand-clapping, foot-stomping anthem is fun, but the song honestly seems a bit watered-down in comparison to Cullum’s earlier work; repetitive chorus, “It just the same things that I don’t know”, doesn’t inspire much, and despite the peppy percussion, the melody isn’t too memorable, either.

The first real standout on the album is uptempo song, Everything You Didn’t Do. The song boasts another toe-tapping beat, but the breezy refrain is really the joy here (“We should put up a sign/We are citizens of all you can see/We’ve got nothing but time/Cause you’ll find/Everything you didn’t do”), especially as Cullum’s warm vocals float over the lyrics. Again, the song isn’t anything revolutionary, but the carefree vibe and accessible melody go a long way.

Jamie Cullum at Colours of Ostrava 2009

The best song on the album is Cullum’s remake of Pure Imagination. Cullum takes the song made famous by Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and puts a dazzling jazz spin on it.  The song is slowed down significantly and turned into a slow-burning, torch ballad. Cullum offers a strong, clear and passionate vocal delivery, as well as a stunning piano interlude during the track’s breakdown, reminding the listener that he really is a jazz musician at heart.

Pure Imagination ends up acting as a bridge to the latter (and better) half of the album. A cluster of really strong songs appear immediately after, including Motown-esque number, Anyway. Cullum sounds like he’s summoning his inner R&B artist on the number, with the urban beat and his spicy delivery, and the track is a highlight.

The heartbeat percussion of Sad, Sad World is the first thing I noticed about the track, but the song also holds some of the most interesting lyrics on the album (“Let me surround you with all the love that you deserve/The dawn’ll tell you of everything that you are worth…/Will you help me paint a smile/On this sad, sad world?”). The mid-tempo ballad is another favourite of mine, due to that aforementioned infectious beat, the hopeful lyrics, and Cullum’s smooth vocals. Take Me Out (Of Myself) was a bit of a surprise when I first heard the lyrics- was Cullum really singing about getting high? Indeed, he is, but you can’t help empathizing with his need for escapism (“What used to seem so magical now seems so trite/So one more time lets go and get so high tonight/Take me take me take me/Take me out of myself/You and me should go and get so high tonight/Just like everyone else”), especially when it’s set to a tune as catchy and cheerful as this one.

Save Your Soul is a downbeat track with more heavy percussion and a soaring chorus that I absolutely love (“When it gets too late/And I find my place/Who will save your soul and love me here/When it gets too far/Well, let down your guard/Who will save your soul and love me here”). The song has somewhat of a anthemetic quality to it, particularly towards the end when the chorus becomes a stuttered repetition, and the strings are swelling in the background. Again, this song is one I’ve added to my favourites; the melody and chorus are absolutely unforgettable and the track is one of the best in Cullum’s catalog.

There are a few middle-of-the-road tracks, however. Edge of Something has a polished pop/jazz sound which I like, but the song itself is pretty plain and forgettable. When I Get Famous has a promising start, with some impressive sounding brass, before fading into what is ultimately a lesser version of Cullum’s other song about fame, “I Wanna Be A Popstar”. Love For Sale is a grungy, trip/hop take on a jazz standard. The dirty drum loop sounds like something you’d hear in a club, and guest rapper, Roots Manuva‘s rhymes are decent, but I wish Cullum would’ve played this one straight. Acoustic number,Get A Hold Of Yourself, is a nice change of pace- musically, it’s the most stripped down song on the album- but the track ends up lacking that special something that would’ve made it a hit.

The disc ends with a upbeat piano-based track, You’re Not The Only One. The bouncy melody is definitely accessible, but the song is another that doesn’t do much for me. At best, the song sounds like one of Cullum’s b-sides, and in fact, out of the 50 or so live/demo/unreleased recordings of his I’ve collected over the years, I can think of at least 20 of them that could’ve been properly recorded and placed on the album instead.

When I think about this album in comparison to Jamie Cullum‘s other works, I can’t say it’s his absolute best effort. Perhaps the album prior to this one (The Pursuit, 2009) holds that distinction, but either way, Momentum is still a solid release. There are plenty of fantastic songs here- songs that I’m likely to enjoy for the next years until Cullum releases another brillant record.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track List
1. The Same Things
2. Edge Of Something
3. Everything You Didn’t Do
4. When I Get Famous
5. Love For $ale (Feat. Roots Manuva)
6. Pure Imagination
7. Anyway
8. Sad, Sad World
9. Take Me Out (Of Myself)
10. Save Your Soul
11. Get A Hold Of Yourself
12. You’re Not The Only One

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFo0fpl7Txo]
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