Preview: James Blunt, Japan, 2006

Blunt Object

2005 was James Blunt's year. His debut album Back to Bedlam, a mix of bittersweet folk pop and blue–eyed soul was the UK's best seller, while his ubiquitous single You're Beautiful not only displaced Robbie William's Angels as the wedding chapel favorite in the UK, but was the first number one hit by a British artist in the USA since Elton John re-released his hit Candle in the Wind as a tribute to Princess Diana in 1997. One might well wonder what is behind this remarkable phenomenon and whether it will last.

You're Beautiful not only had a strong melodic hook that was the perfect showcase for the 28-year-old singer’s distinctive voice –a falsetto with vibrato – but was made unforgettable by the unique video in which Blunt takes off his clothes and empties his pockets and carefully arranges his possessions, before jumping off a cliff into the sea. The video, which was actually shot in Majorca, Spain, and involved Blunt jumping 40 feet into the water, suggests suicide brought on by an impossible love, but the real story is less extreme.

"I wrote it after an experience of seeing my ex-girlfriend on the underground in London," he explained in interview. "She was with her new man, who I didn't know existed. And she and I caught eyes for that moment and lived a lifetime in that small second, and I haven't seen her since."

The first impression of this video and also Blunt's deconstruction of it both serve the same end, which is to present a largely female audience with a male fantasy figure, in Blunt's case a man who is handsome, buffed, sensitive, emotional, and – as suggested by the quote – available. These attractive qualities are augmented by other aspects of Blunt, and are also expressed, whether by accident or design, on the other songs on his album.

When hearing Blunt speak you can't fail to notice his plumy, upper–class English accent. While the Queen's English, with its connotation of wealth and privilege, is an attractive thing in itself, it also has some negatives, suggesting a stodgy, old–fashioned traditionalism. Blunt's visual image, with his artfully disheveled hair, designer stubble, and casual dress sense, however, carefully counteracts this starchy image, an effect further helped by dropping the 'o' from his name, which was originally Blount. A similar need to offset his class stereotype also explains the quirkiness and surrealism of his videos, like the one for his debut single High, where he is buried in the desert sand up to his neck.

But, the main problem that a fey, upper–class sensitive English singer songwriter with a high-pitched voice faces is a perceived deficiency of masculinity, leading to an inevitable campaign of ridicule, guaranteed to undermine future sales. As an antidote to this, Blunt's past as a British army officer is often trotted out, both in interview and in song.

One of the best songs on the album is the poignant No Bravery, a sad-eyed, piano–driven lament for the atrocities caused by the break up of the multicultural state of Yugoslavia. Blunt served for several months in Kosovo as a peacekeeper following the Serb withdrawal from the troubled province in 1999. His experiences in this war-torn area mean that he has been shot at more times than the rapper Fifty Cents, although with less effect (probably due to his British army training).

So, what we have in Blunt is an almost perfect package of qualities – calibrated and counterbalanced – that is guaranteed to make women go weak at the knees. Naturally this has stirred the envy and ire of many a male, including Live Aid mastermind Bob Geldof. At a recent concert someone asked the aging Irish rocker to perform You're Beautiful. Geldof replied in his usual expletive–rich way, "F**k off, that's the 21st century Lady in Red," referring to Chris de Burgh's horrendously schmaltzy and overplayed song from the 1980s.

Despite his masculine image of ex–soldier, the most common dig is still at Blunt's 'girly' vocals. When he won the award for 'Best Male' at the recent Brit Awards, he accepted the award by saying, "I have been accused so many times of singing like a girl that it is amazing to be the best male."

Such self-deprecating humor – something apparently honed in the military – does a lot to draw the sting from critics, but whether the Blunt bandwagon will continue to roll depends less on the image than on the continued quality of the songwriting and singing, as on the excellent Tears and Rain, co-written with Robbie Williams' longtime songwriting partner Guy Chambers.

"I think people generally are just interested in the music and the songs," Blunt says on his latest DVD. "That's why they go and get an album, not for what shoes I'm wearing. Sure people might want to know a bit about you, but at the end of the day it's the music and the way they relate to it that's far more important."

James Blunt played SHIBUYA-AX on 24 April, Nagoya Club Quattro on 26 April, and Matsushita IMP Hall on 27 April

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
7th April, 2006
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