Aiden Grimshaw – review

Cargo, London

In the wake of the Olympics it seems wrong to bring up The X Factor. I'm not the first to note that a couple of weeks ago we were all rooting for refugees and being convivial with one another. Now it's business as usual, being vile to the emotionally vulnerable. The new series of XF began a week ago with lower viewing figures than usual, a return that coincides – perhaps not coincidentally – with the release of the debut album of Aiden Grimshaw, as close as The X Factor has probably ever come to a refusenik.

Many talent show also-rans have made valiant runs at careers with varying levels of success. Rebecca Ferguson has probably emerged with the most dignity, while other failures have been forgotten entirely. (Anyone else remember Chico Time?) But devotees of Britain's gaudiest sausage machine will probably recall the young Grimshaw more clearly than much of the mechanically recovered televisual meat it usually spits out.

Two years ago, Grimshaw, a teenager from Blackpool, came ninth. But his version of Tears For Fears' Mad World lives long in the memory. He sang it in a frilly shirt that looked like a straitjacket. Such was the savagery of Grimshaw's delivery, the force of his thousand-yard stare, you feared that he might come offstage and start gnawing the scenery.

For those who eschew The X Factor on humanitarian grounds, this was the most salient fact here. Grimshaw emerged, at least by the standards of The X Factor, as an intense guy, beset a little by issues of integrity. He brooded. He had a quiff, the "I'm a bit like Morrissey, me" hair-do that launched a thousand Joey Barton apologists. In an interview with Gay Times, though, Grimshaw has claimed the signature quiff was "an accident".

Misty Eye, his album, came out a fortnight ago to mixed reviews. This intimate, low-key club gig in a Shoreditch nightspot – about as far from the bling of The X Factor as you can get – celebrates its release, a week late. Grimshaw laughs off the lag by muttering something about "too much going on".

The biggest surprise at seeing Grimshaw, now just shy of 21, in the flesh is how he faintly recalls the young Robbie Williams, just sprung from Take That – a young, northern lad loose in a southern world; that regional chippy swagger coupled with his own trademark focus. The quiff is gone. He has a band and a new penchant for alt rock and atmospherics, for dubstep and drum'n'bass.

The Olympics may have accustomed us to winning narratives, but Grimshaw's arc is just not panning out that way. It would have been deeply satisfying for him to come back with a set of songs whose nous and verve trumped the inane mewlings of winner Matt Cardle, or the focus-grouped, committee-written hegemony of chart pop. But for all Grimshaw's vocal elasticity these songs are neither big nor clever enough for a podium finish alongside Will Young, the talent-show-loser-turned-pop-star by which all talent-show-losers-turned-pop-stars will be judged, his music notwithstanding.

You want to cheer, because Grimshaw has looked into the idea of credibility. But he's misunderstood it fundamentally, mainly by allowing his producers to trend-hop rather than lead. Sometimes he's baggy; sometimes he's trip hop, sometimes, as on Nothing At All, he just makes off wholesale with the shuffle of Emeli Sandé's Heaven, itself indebted to Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy.

When Grimshaw sings Is This Love, he shows the possibilities. He sounds a little like Coldplay's Chris Martin, wounded but still capable of flight. The trouble here is that Grimshaw is coasting over the clatter of knee-jerk drum'n'bass, now de rigueur in chart pop but as overused as melisma. There are lyrics here about drowning, the inability to catch one's breath and losing the power of speech, piled atop one another with a shovel.

The title track, meanwhile, starts with a sampled nod to Moby and is soon bogged down in another tar pit of cliche and portentousness. The beats shlump along, the synth strings follow a pre-set arrangement labelled "sadface". You hold out higher hopes of a song called Poacher's Timing, which suggests nuanced life experience. It's better, but not by much. Grimshaw's most satisfying three minutes come in Curtain Call, ironically, the album's most mainstream cut. Chris Martin is in the house again, hitched to a soul sample and some belated feelgood uplift.

The interstices of pop are always intriguing when some DNA from one variety migrates over to another; when an artist is not quite flesh nor fowl. But Grimshaw's set lays bare a bizarre collage of influences. It's less of a Pinterest mood board and more a haphazard fling at the wall.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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