Joss Stone’s fifth album, LP1, continues the British soul singer’s tendency to present every release as a brand new beginning. Her last album, Colour Me Free!, was purported to offer a gaze at Stone’s soul, which had been up to that point obscured by the commercial machinations of her label, EMI (she sank a good deal of cash in order to terminate that contract early). She called her third album Introducing…Joss Stone, odd enough given that her debut and sophomore effort were received well enough by critics and consumers. The difference this time around is that Stone is no longer tied to any major label, instead releasing LP1 on her own Stone’d Records imprint. Stone even launches the album with a song called “Newborn,” wherein she exhorts listeners to live every day like it’s their first.
All of Stone’s efforts at self-promotion aside, the album won’t surprise anyone familiar with the singer’s past output. She does bluesy riffs over minimal keys-and-guitar backing, sounding appropriately sultry and smoky, moving from purr to howl, and allotting room for the occasional electric guitar solo. It’s not exactly the case that every song on LP1 is interchangeable. “Don’t Start Lying to Me Now” packs a wallop, with Stone believably affecting rocker-chick swagger over the type of honky-tonk blues that Jagger and company minted on Exile on Main St. There’s a mid-album pair of torch songs, “Cry Myself to Sleep” and “Drive All Night,” that also impress. But sameness is nevertheless an issue, as most of the songs here aspire to little more than providing scenery for Stone’s vocals. There’s no doubt that Stone’s rough-hewn voice is a treasure, but Janis Joplin never (okay, rarely) consigned Big Brother and Holding Company to extra status; she rocked out with the boys, not over them.
Stone’s boomerang-like recurrence to the most minimal variety of blues and R&B, her hostility to flashiness and pop slickness, means that attention inevitably moves toward her lyrics. If this is intentional, then Stone and co-writer David Stewart have simply overestimated how interesting their libretto is. Here we have a young woman chronicling her hopes and heartbreaks, translating the pages of her diary directly into coffeehouse prose as would a much less-experienced songwriter like Taylor Swift. It’s mostly literal fare, which you come to appreciate when you note that Stone’s flights of metaphorical fancy tend to land on lines like “I don’t want to be your landlord anymore” (to a lover) and “Let’s treat this day like a newborn baby” (to, uh, humanity).
I suspect I’d find all of this less annoying if Stone’s refusal to stop waving her “back to basics” banner wasn’t so clearly implicated in the album’s mediocrity. Using her powerful and distinctive voice to belt out ho-hum songs with zilch in the way of emotional payoff, relying on the same dynamics that thousands of aspiring stars will employ at open-mic nights around the world this weekend, she’s at exactly the place in her career where she should be if this were, in fact, her first LP. But it’s not. This a wholly acceptable effort, but it makes it clear that Stone is stalling out a mere decade into what looked at first like a promising career. It’s time for her to throw the throwback shtick aside and really figure out what kind music she’d like to make. I realize the irony here, which is that I’m asking Stone for yet another new beginning. But it’s one of those things where you only have to do it right once.