Charlie Simpson likely won't appreciate mention of his chequered boy-band-with-guitars past, but his overwritten press release dedicates an entire section to it, so let's dive right in.
For better and for worse, Simpson's education is a matter of public record. Though not yet 30 years of age, his stint in Busted feels like a lifetime ago. To his credit, he's dedicated to the concept of reinvention. He jacked Busted in when the time was right, dismaying teenagers and his mystified bandmates. Fightstar, a Kerrang!-friendly outfit and bid to be taken seriously, followed. They unearthed the odd gem, most notably 'Mercury Summer', a criminally-underrated pop triumph and proof positive that there is more to Simpson than flouncing about whilst cheap cartoon interpretations of the future dance behind you. Incidentally, kudos for avoiding McBusted (for fuck's sake, lads!) like the plague, Charlie.
With Fightstar going about as far as they realistically could, it was time for a new chapter, one familiar to many starting out; stripped back, acoustic guitar in hand, solo. Though 2011's Young Pilgrim presented an unshackled Simpson, a lighter sound and moments of clarity, its pieces didn't quite form the whole. Long Road Home - technically his eighth album in total - is which words like 'promise' and 'potential' need to be swapped out for 'accomplished' and 'realised'. And yet… well, it's not that black and white, after all.
An argument could be made that Simpson is somewhat bland, that a critical piece of the puzzle remains undiscovered. Personally, I'd contend that he's a much better songwriter than, say, Ed Sheeran, Passenger and a host of identikit others. So it's especially frustrating that he chooses to tap into trends as much as he does on this sophomore solitary effort. Long Road Home is barely four minutes old by the time that Simpson feels the need to ape Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers on the knee-slappin', "Hey!"-hollerin' 'Comets'. Is it a fun, jaunty tune? Sure. Is it also wildly transparent? You betcha. Coming after a strong opening bolt in the form of a punchy title track, 'Comets' feels weak, obvious and more than a little cynical. You expect better at this stage of a fairly topsy-turvy career. You want signatures, not soundalikes.
The honeyed guitar lines and MOR stylings of 'Winter Hymns' slow the pace, acting more of a transition into the album's most eyebrow-raising affair. 'Emily', as per the press release, is indeed "the kind of high-harmony love letter than Bon Iver would kill for", which is a pretty ballsy summation of a track that Simpson should hope Justin Vernon won't sue over. The opening guitar line is as close as you can get to 'Re:Stacks' without actually strumming it out note for note. There's a line about wolves knocking at the door. A brass swell eventually emerges. There's a hint of Vernon-esque falsetto. I mean, come on, dude.
Credit where it's due; 'Emily' is a really good song. It's sweet, well-structured, closes with patient grace and offers up Simpson at his most engaged. But jesus christ… really? Nobody thought it was a little too close to snowbound heartbreak territory?
'Would You Love Me Any Less' ploughs a similar wistful furrow but at least feels like it belongs entirely to the author. Like 'Emily', it makes good on the decision to transpose Simpson's touring band to the studio. The additional elements are used sparingly - well-treated, straightforward drums here, a burst of strings there - to great effect, carefully supporting a vocal line that grows with further listens. 'Haunted', sandwiched in between, does the lead single thing very well, throwing out hooks and getting to the point quickly even if the reinforced couplet of "We're born together/We'll die together finds Simpson going full Biffy Clyro. 'Ten More Days' and 'Blood' keep things simple and both connect. Simpson's vocals in the latter, though a tad Gotye-esque, ring among his strongest.
So it's a bumpy road, then. One worth walking, however. The presence of Simpson's band definitely raises his game - see 'Forty Thieves' for another example of effective building - but adventure should extend beyond trace elements. As the extended piano line of 'Another Year' provides final, elegant breaths, we're left with the sense that Charlie Simpson, long free of the bonds that kill so many careers, has yet to entirely find himself. He's getting closer, though.
6Dave Hanratty's Score