At first, Brit school alumna Olivia Dean’s debut album Messy feels worryingly like another addition to the catalogue marked “stage school to neo-soul crooner”. There are horns, shuffling 60s rhythms and artificial vinyl crackling, just in case you need reminding that what you’re listening to is inspired by something “vintage”. This is the fault, mainly, of songs such as Dive, with its innocuous Motown stylings, and the beaming gospel lite of The Hardest Part, which comes off more Joss Stone than Smokey Robinson.
They do east London-born Dean a disservice: among the hackneyed British soul tropes, the 24-year-old clearly has a distinct vision of off-kilter pop. Album opener UFO, with its anxious vocoder, warm acoustic strum and cradle-side melodies, is like Imogen Heap filtered through Laura Marling, Dean debating whether to be intimate with a partner until she sings: “I might as well fall / Into your earthly hands.” The waltzing melodies of No Man are paired with peculiar rain-drop production and silver screen strings as Dean pushes her voice into her fragile lower register. And the spectacular title track, with its worried guitars and light merengue sway, embodies the anxieties of early adulthood, Dean addressing herself as she sings: “You don’t need to be ready / It’s okay if it’s messy.” Hopefully next time Dean will relinquish the tired neo-soul fodder to pursue the experimentation she’s clearly capable of.