Back in July, when Kathleen Brien was adding what were supposed to be the finishing touches to her second album, she told the Guardian, revealingly: "I can't go out on the weekend and have my mum do the washing any more," adding that she had been "finding a way to stand on my own feet". If you detect an air of reluctance on her part at having to grow up, then recent comments only serve to reinforce that impression. "I still want to be the girl who goes raving with her friends," she told the Observer. "But my manager's like: 'You can't go to Brixton McDonald's at four o'clock in the morning any more!'"
It's often assumed that the thing that makes a second album "difficult" – and a three-year gap, including delays, makes it fair to assume Little Red's conception hasn't always been smooth – is that the artist has used all their best songs on its predecessor. But an equally pressing problem is that the artist no longer has interesting stories to tell. This is especially the case when your first album casts you, and your life, as its central star, as Katy B's debut On a Mission did so perfectly. What made that record stand out from the crowd wasn't just the way it deftly trod the line between underground dance credibility and mainstream pop success, opening up the door for the likes of Disclosure, Jessie Ware and Rudimental to storm the charts, but the perspective she provided: singing about dance music from the centre of the dancefloor, rather than from the DJ booth or behind some velvet VIP room rope.
So what happens when the star in question is no longer able to have a night on the tiles without worrying about being home in time to tumble-dry her jeans? Finding a relatable way to write about your life when your life has been changed immeasurably by success is a problem indie bands struggle with frequently, although perhaps the perfect example comes from the dance arena, and the transition Mike Skinner had to make between the Streets' Original Pirate Material and its follow-up, A Grand Don't Come for Free. Given that the only way Skinner felt he could return after the verisimilitude of his debut was with a concept album about love and loyalty centred around £1,000 falling down the back of a television set, it suggests Katy B has quite a task on her hands with Little Red.
The early signs indicated that Brien would continue with her dancefloor portraits, adding depth to her storytelling. The album's first single, 5am, is a rave-pop belter that captures beautifully the moment the night winds down and the emotions that come with it. "I need somebody to calm me down, a little lovin' like Valium," sings Brien, whose decision to seek out a last-ditch hook-up to deal with her comedown certainly beats the traditional method of sitting with your head in your hands all weekend, crying at cartoons. Aaliyah pairs a ping-pong synth line with Jessie Ware's goosedown tones for a frank tale of dancefloor jealousy. It must be noted, however, that 5am is already five months old, whereas Aaliyah was one of the best songs of the year – in 2012. These tracks seem to catch Brien in transition, before she alighted on how she really wanted to follow up On a Mission, which was by taking her songwriting into more personal territory: break-ups, uncertainty, the general air of someone whose favourite beats are now downbeat.
Reading on mobile? Watch the video for 5am here
The problem with Katy B "growing up", however, is that this newly cultivated adult persona is significantly less original than her youthful one. Songwriting-gun-for-hire Guy Chambers has been enlisted for the huge torch ballad such as Crying for No Reason, which talks about breaking up with someone from the perspective of, well, someone who's broken up with someone. All My Lovin', meanwhile, will remain of fascinating insight only to those who've never before considered the parallels between love and drugs ("like ecstasy, what you give to me"). I Like You sees Brien playing with both fire and desire. During Falling Down she's "tumbling, crumbling" – and were there a few extra seconds you get the impression she could have ended up fumbling and mumbling too.
It's a problem compounded by much of the music, in which a synthy polish and a bigger budget – no doubt with Radio 2 crossover potential in mind – serve to dim Katy B's personality further. Where On a Mission thrived on its shoestring, ramshackle charm, Little Red is a sleek and often mid-paced affair, relying on a sound that no longer feels fresh: Emotions has a chorus that strains for the stars and ends up feeling sledgehammer subtle.
It's not that these are identikit pop songs being pumped out to order. Brien's club credentials and collaborators (Rinse FM's Geeneus steers the album; Sampha adds his bruised vocals on Play) are above that. Listen closely and there is deftness in the details of every song on here: the warped electronic coda that plays out Crying for No Reason; Sapphire Blue's stealth rhythmic build. But for all their qualities, rarely do they have the lightness of step, vibrant energy or sheer ear-grabbing melodic pull that characterised Katy B's earlier songs.
Reading on mobile? Watch the video for Crying for No Reason here
It might be unfair to compare Little Red to its predecessor, rather than the swaths of pop-dance being churned out to which this is obviously superior. But you can't help it, because it points out Little Red's main contradiction: that in making a more personal record, Katy B has somehow ended up putting less of Katy B on it.