On his fifth full-length, The Afterlove, British singer James Blunt makes a risky shift in his sensitive-guy-with-a-guitar sound, opting for a taut collection that tugs at the heartstrings with polished pop sheen. The slight departure seems to be a conscious decision, as the confidently self-aware Blunt sings that he "would have said 'you're beautiful'/but I used that line before," referencing his inescapable 2005 smash single. Recruiting OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder and Ed Sheeran on production, writing, and occasional backing vocals (the trio even joins forces on the pastoral "Time of Our Lives"), Blunt presents his most mainstream offering yet. Indeed, at certain points, his trademark wounded falsetto drifts into Adam Levine territory, turning songs like the soaring "Bartender," the pulsing "California," and the shimmering "Lose My Number" into the best Maroon 5 songs released in 2017. For longtime fans, these changes might be jarring. Even peppier tracks from the Mumford-esque Moon Landing -- take "Heart to Heart" for example -- had the distinct feeling that a band was at least somewhere in the vicinity during the recording sessions. And yet, Afterlove is not Blunt selling his soul to the pop gods. Standout "Don't Give Me Those Eyes" is Blunt's dramatic soft rock at its moving best, riding a pensive piano and orchestra to great emotional effect. The Sheeran-produced "Make Me Better" is genuine and sweet, while "Heartbeat" swells with urgency and drama. Earnest toe-tapper "Someone Singing Along" combines his past and present sounds with his affable personality most seamlessly, weaving guitar twang with a thumping heart as Blunt sings "even if some notes are wrong/I'm hoping someone's singing along/'cause just one voice is not enough/I need to hear from everyone/and even when I'm dead and gone/I'm hoping someone's singing along." Even though he's calling for empathy and strength, his own dreams of the music outliving the man seep through the finer points of the big message. Although he's pretty much guaranteed that legacy with "You're Beautiful," Afterlove is a brave bid for contemporary relevance in 2017, a wonderful step outside his comfort zone that is more memorable and exciting than much of his output this decade.
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AllMusic Review by Neil Z. Yeung
feat: Robin Schulz