The first thing that consumers ought to know about British soul technician Jamie Lidell’s second full-length solo record, Jim, is that it was, indeed, created in the 21st century. Although its production, arrangements, vocal approaches, and songwriting all variously and completely resemble that of any given classic American ‘70s soul record, it was in fact created last year, in locations including Berlin and Paris. Aside from the album itself, there is no hard evidence that Lidell is now, or has ever been, in possession of any kind of device enabling time travel. Consumers may also wish to note that there’s no evidence to indicate that Lidell is anything other than a white boy, despite the Redding/Green oomph his voice displays throughout this album. Jim’s eyes are blue, and his soul is blue-eyed. A pasty Limey hasn’t channeled black America this successfully since, um, Amy Winehouse.
Right. Okay, so the fact that late-model Queen’s English can affect the grit and smoke and displaced vigor of Memphis or Detroit in the ‘70s is not in itself surprising. (Incidentally, the related fact that it’s been a long time since music that sounds like this was the rightful province of any one particular skin color ought to disarm any critique of Lidell’s authenticity; he is very authentically a white person who sings beautiful soul music.) Most importantly, Lidell’s interpretation of the forms he grapples with here is fundamentally robust—more so, in fact, than Grammy sweetheart Winehouse’s.
Given the aptness of the comparison, it’s worth noting that Lidell distinguishes himself from the competition in numerous ways. Where Her Beehiveness’s preeminent theme is her own dissolution, Lidell revels in crisp professionalism, gliding through immaculately produced tracks to deliver (stereo)typical soul lyrics like “Let’s make magic/Just to put things right” with precision. And where Back to Black sought (with some success) to accelerate soul music into the hip-hop era, Lidell’s sound is essentially classicist. His approach here lacks even the subtle electro flourishes of his debut, Multiply; the most modern aspect of this record is the broad range of his pastiche within his chosen genre.
Which brings us to Jim, and specifically why, in a just world, it would cross over and sell millions of records and be the official 2008 soundtrack to a great cup of coffee. The album kicks off with the blue-sky morning of “Another Day,” a piano-led blast of pop bolstered by gospel trills and the sound of birds chirping. “Wait for Me” and “Out of My System” continue on in this productive vein, each in turn balancing Lidell’s naturally passionate vocal performances with organic-sounding Rhodes and judiciously melodic strands of guitar. The latter track features about 10 seconds of a horn section, a great example of the restraint at the heart of this album’s appeal.
The lilting grace of “All I Wanna Do” and the outstanding album closer “Rope of Sand” also demonstrate Lidell’s light touch with a ballad. And “Green Light,” which coasts in on vaguely Middle Eastern bubbles of percussion, deserves special mention for containing both the album’s most indelible lyric and, in the shimmering inflection granted to its title phrase, its catchiest hook. This is saying something, because every single song on Jim will battle for space in the part of your brain that gets hooked.
Good as the ballads are, Lidell isn’t just a sensitive guy. Songs like “Figured Me Out,” which rides a disorientingly proto/post-funk synth riff, and “Hurricane,” which layers a surprisingly credible James Brown impression atop some Spectoresque guitar swells, give Lidell ample opportunity to strut. In sequence, the harder and softer moments complement one another fully, which means that the album plays seamlessly. Frankly, it sounds like a set of covers of classic songs that were lost to history, despite being brand new. Though there there’s very little on Jim that actually innovates, all the otherworldly super-competence allows it to cleanly transcend such pedestrian concerns. And while some (sourpuss) fans might be taken aback by the fact that the once forward-looking Lidell has made such an unapologetically formally conservative record, most will probably say: Let’s do the timewarp again.