James Arthur, “YOU” (Columbia)
James Arthur’s third album doesn’t come with a warning sticker but it should: Do not attempt to listen to this record in one sitting, especially while operating machinery. Even the happiest among us will swerve into traffic hearing wave after wave of sadness.
Arthur, a onetime “The X Factor” winner, offers almost an hour of music on “YOU,” a 17-track monster with a mirror-like cover that reflects the purchaser. But if we are in any way responsible for this amount of anguish, we deeply apologize.
He’s made his reputation as an emo pop-soulster and Arthur is, for the most part, staying in his sad-sack lane, with nearly every tune sounding like he’s holding back ugly tears. “When you hit bottom, only place to go is up,” he sings in one song. On another: “Sometimes I carry on just to stumble down once more.”
Even when he feels relatively happy — “Finally Feel Good,” ”Car’s Outside” and “Maybe” — it’s wrenched stuff. He veers into terribly mushy pop with “Marine Parade (2013)” and “Homicide Love” but shows he can do much better with “If We Can Get Through This We Can Get Through Anything.”
It’s a bit of a shame because when Arthur does step outside the Sam Smith mode, he shines. “Treehouse” with Ty Dolla $ign and Shotty Horroh, and “You” with Travis Barker, prove he can mix it up. It’s no accident that guests seem to draw him out. (An exception is “Unconditionally” featuring Adam Lazzara, which is a mess.)
An album this large and one-note reveals that, left to his own, Arthur’s expressive voice often papers over the thinness of the songs (“Naked,” ”Empty Space,” ”Fall” and “Sad Eyes”). To borrow a song title from him, if you can get through this album, you can get through anything.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits