Perhaps one of the most eclectic albums of the year, Faith's latest achieves a lot with a collection of songs that both work as stand-alone numbers and form a compelling narrative. Where it falls short is the unnecessary collaborations feeling the need to spoon-feed the listener.
Back with her fourth studio album, following her critically and commercially successful A Perfect Contradiction, Paloma Faith takes a somewhat political turn in her latest The Architect. Though packed with a host of questionable collaborations, the album as a whole makes a definitive point with a mix of diverse and well-constructed songs. With an assorted set of tracks – including dramatic, upbeat and stripped back numbers – it’s a well-accomplished piece which sustains the singer’s place in the canon of exceptional British talent.
Faith brings in a host of talent to accompany her: Owen Jones, John Legend, and Samuel L. Jackson all feature. Jackson, in fact, is the only vocal in the album’s first track which serves as a spoken-word political commentary. I get the intention here but its out-of-place and overly explicit, feeling more like a film than an album opener. The same happens again when Jones in ‘A Politics of Hope’ delivers a spoken-word monologue about defending the rights and freedoms our ancestors fought for. Albums should not tell us what to think: it should instead deliver a meaningful impression. Faith is somewhat underdoing her own songwriting abilities by handing the listener the message on a plate. Legend’s collaboration in ‘I’ll Be Gentle’ is also underwhelming. Their voices, though impressive, don’t gel together. Having said that, his softer vocal fits with the song being one of the more optimistic (“we all need a little kindness/ all this cruelty is so mindless”). Overall though, the collaborative tracks (though only Legend’s is actually a collaboration) don’t hit the mark.
Where the album regains itself are Faith’s own songs. She sustains a real sense of drama throughout the first half of the album: in ‘The Architect’ and ‘Guilty’ she uses a full orchestra – as well as the sounds of storm clouds – to give the songs a James-Bond aloofness. Her quirky vocal tones against the strong beat give the songs a strength which transmits when listening. This ensures the message comes across powerfully, indeed more powerfully than the overbearing explicit spoken-word tracks. Building up the beat’s tension, her chorus (“I will forgive you/ for the burden and neglect/ I will forgive you/ but I cannot forget”), as well as the lead line (“I am the architect”) powerfully portrays taking control over your life and casting off others negative energy . It reminds me of a movie track we’d expect to see picking up an Oscar.
Weirdly, the political content vanishes through most of Faith’s own numbers, which focus more on relationships, though employing political metaphors. In ‘Surrender’, she begs a man to stay with her, with the metaphor referring to people having power together. The song, musically, though is one of the album’s best. Faith uses a near-acapella bridge to expose her vocal uniqueness alongside a set of powerful notes which expose the vulnerability in opposition to the strength of the more dramatic numbers. It gives the album a real sense of diversity as it explores the different sides of our personalities and emotions. She then switches entirely back to the feel of her original first album in ‘Lost and Lonely’ (which serves as a nostalgia trip for her committed fans) as she exposes the quasi-soul dimension of her vocal alongside the idiosyncratic ticks that caused it to come to critical attention. Sometimes it feels like the album is doing too much, and that there isn’t a specific vocal or artistic direction but a collection of different artistic experiments. She suddenly switches to upbeat-pop in ‘It’s Not Over’ and ‘Crybaby’ in numbers that become paradigmatic examples of questionable X-Factor song choices for “disco week”. But then Gaga (in Artpop), Rihanna (in Anti) and Beyoncé (in Lemonade) have all done this in recent years, so perhaps this isn’t negative in the current market. What is missing, as ‘Guilty’ doesn’t achieve it, is the big ballad number similar to A Perfect Contradiction’s ‘Only Love Can Hurt Like This’. But – given my previous comment – perhaps I cannot criticise missing another artistic direction.
As well as relationships themselves, Faith makes a powerful statement about our treatment of others more generally, especially in ‘WW3’ (“what kind of man gets a thrill from the life he’s taken?… I’ve had enough/ I’m calling you out”). But the song remains commanding, compared to Sam Smith’s recent stripped melodic reflections on relationships in The Thrill of it All. The focus here is on power and strength: and the bridge which deploys a clapping-beat with the lines “there ain’t no peace left here between us” sounds like a musical version of sticking two-fingers up and sassily walking away from an ex-partner with tenacity. There is a nice narrative through the album: it starts with the more dramatic songs, moving on to the softer and reflective songs. It’s like the progress of political movements and relationships: anger, drama, sorrow but finally happiness and reflection. The closing track ‘Love Me As I Am’ deploys a dreamier more relaxing backing reflecting on progress and learning from mistakes (“I realise I get out of hand/ I don’t even ask for you to understand/ I can’t apologise for being who I am”). But the message is: stay who you are. Find those who appreciate you for you. It’s such a powerful message and one that often gets missed in the mass of break-up albums obsessed with sorrow and heartbreak. It’s a heart-warming moment as the album ends with the sound of children playing and the repeated line “love me as I am”.
In some ways, The Architect becomes hard to review as it’s a diverse set of songs and political monologues. But, questionable collaborations aside, the album’s narrative is structurally tight and the song’s themselves impressive. And, for those not already fans of Faith, there is certainly something for everyone. But after it all I’m left wondering: when is too much, too much?
The Architect is out tomorrow via Sony Music