Mabel: High Expectations review – confident pop lacks personality | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Polydor)
On her undeniably hit-making debut, the daughter of Neneh Cherry sings ‘I’m not a people pleaser’ over backings intent on pleasing as many as possible

The title of Mabel McVey’s debut album seems less like an expression of thrusting youthful ambition than a statement of fact. High Expectations arrives with her current single Mad Love just outside the Top 10, and its predecessor, Don’t Call Me Up, still lurking around the charts a full six months after its release. Excited voices are calling her the next Dua Lipa, which sounds like faint praise – with the greatest of respect, it doesn’t quite have the hyperbolic cachet of the next Dylan or the next Madonna – until you realise that Dua Lipa is basically the only British pop artist who isn’t Ed Sheeran to have broken America in eons. They don’t want our rappers, however much Drake tries to convince them otherwise; they evince no interest in our massed ranks of earnest post-Sheeran acoustic troubadours, but it’s multiplatinum hits and million-selling albums up the wazoo for the New Rules singer.

Mabel: High Expectations album artwork
Mabel: High Expectations album artwork Photograph: PR Handout

From the outside at least, McVey’s path to this point has seemed remarkably smooth: the first song she posted to SoundCloud in 2015 ended up being played on Radio 1 and securing her a major label deal; three of her subsequent singles went platinum. Don’t Call Me Up has been a hit not just in the UK but the US, hence the Dua Lipa comparisons. So smooth, in fact, that McVey has been at pains to point out that nepotism has nothing to do with it. She certainly comes from hip music industry stock – her mum is Neneh Cherry, her father Cameron McVey was the executive producer of Massive Attack’s Blue Lines – but anyone searching for sonic evidence of her lineage on High Expectations is going to go home disappointed. It goes fangs-out for the 2019 pop jugular, with a host of familiar names on hand to help ensure its success is as much of a foregone conclusion as possible: Steve Mac, whose hit-making career stretches back to mid-90s boybands Damage and 5ive and whose recent songwriting successes include Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You and Clean Bandit’s Rockabye and Symphony; Fraser T Smith of Adele and Stormzy fame; MNEK, co-author of Dua Lipa’s IDGAF among others and Jimmy Napes, whose fingerprints are on huge chunks of both Sam Smith albums.

On the plus side, that helps ensure the songs are uniformly well turned. There’s a certain bullish confidence about the fact that most of McVey’s previous hits are confined to bonus-track status, and if nothing leaps out in quite the same way as Don’t Call Me Up, nor is there much in the way of obvious filler: there’s a lot of hooky razzle-dazzle about the choruses of Bad Behaviour and Selfish Love; it’s no stretch of the imagination to picture even the relatively low-key We Don’t Say or Trouble taking up residence in the Top 40. In the debit column, however, playlist-fuelled 2019 pop prizes a certain homogeneity: a scan of the singles chart over the 27 weeks that Don’t Call Me Up has been hanging around strongly suggests that no mainstream pop artist other than Lil Nas X is currently making it big as a result of their devastating originality and penchant for recklessly tearing up the rules. There’s a weird disjunction between McVey’s lyrics, which are big on telling you what a caution-to-the-winds handful she is, and the music that supports them, which sticks pretty fast to the well-made pop-R&B playbook: “I’m not a people pleaser,” she sings on Bad Behaviour, over a backing that’s clearly intent on pleasing as many people as possible.

Mabel: Mad Love – video

Occasionally, though, something of the person who made it does make herself felt amid the Auto-Tuned vocals, tropical house synths and reggaeton-inspired rhythm tracks. OK details her struggles with anxiety, which, judging by her interviews, are very real, but alas are expressed via cliches: “It’s OK not to be OK.” The really interesting thing about the track, however, has nothing to do with the lyrics: it’s the slight, but detectable, jazzy lilt to the chorus melody, which doesn’t quite take the route you expect it to. Interlude Stckhlm [sic] Syndrome is better still. By some distance the most interesting track on the album, it takes as its starting point a mid-90s R&B slow-jam, suggesting the presence of influences from outside the standard 2019 pop catchment area. It says something about how narrow said catchment area is that a track influenced by mid-90s R&B gives the listener a jolt, but you can’t argue with the end result, which is really well done, a blissful electronic drift that avoids sounding like an obvious pastiche.

High Expectations could use a couple more moments like that, although it probably doesn’t need them to be a huge success: it’s got the big killer pop hit and a tracklist thick with potential follow-ups. As it is, you’re left with a solid, well-made pop album that occasionally hints its maker might be more interesting and individual: time will show if that’s the case, but the immediate future seems secure.

This week Alexis listened to

Marika Hackman: All Night


As sultry as the weather, at least at the time of writing, Hackman’s “overtly sexual song about a woman” is a small-hours gem.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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