Album Review: Paloma Faith – ‘Fall To Grace’

Paloma Faith – ‘Fall To Grace’: 4.0

It’s often the case with love-at-first-sound acts that fans swept away by their charms will arbitrarily adorn anything they do, particularly the more vulnerable, younger fans who develop unhealthily obsessive infatuations – usually based on image rather than sound – with popstars who are safe to tread whatever water they wish, evolving as much or as little as they like and incorporating whatever new elements into their act under the bubble-wrapped notion that they’ll always have a stock of fans waiting to shower them with praise. It’s almost written in stone. And so it comes as a surprise that when Paloma Faith released her new album ‘Fall To Grace’, preceded by lead single ‘Picking Up The Pieces’, that the overly-dramatic, romantic swoon of Paloma’s adventures into love and loss has almost overdosed on the hypnotically hermetic quality that forge cast-iron conviction into ‘Fall To Grace’s meandering balladry.

That isn’t to say her sophomore effort is a deadpan serving of exactly what we saw on her first album – we are, of course, reassured that this album has a more “cinematic” feel, but despite all its successes, that never managed to stop Adele’s ‘21’ being an interchangeable array of rigidly-formed piano ballads (save ‘Rolling In The Deep’) that segued into one another seamlessly; a carbon copy of ‘19’, if you will. ‘Fall To Grace’ has a far more rounded, cleaner production sound consisting of sweeping strings and luxurious melody textures, but overall the residual regressive impulses that burn on long after the album’s last tracks have fizzled out can be compared to Florence + the Machine’s second album, ‘Ceremonials’, in that the more boisterous, playful ditties that broke up both ‘Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?’ and ‘Lungs’s heavier sections have tarnished in the transition both Florence and Paloma made as they made the necessary minor adjustments for their second albums. ‘Ceremonials’ ended up like a marathon of songs fighting each other for grandiosity, blocking out everything else but their own size; ‘Fall To Grace’, while an accomplished statement that proves pop doesn’t need to be bleached of colour or soul to feel grown-up, runs like an indistinguishable collection of belt-and-braces songs that often come across as over-sung or simply contrived, like the three years it took for ‘Fall To Grace’ to come to fruition has left Paloma’s lyrics – no matter how acute their sense of human foibles – sounding hopelessly over-rehearsed and, as a result, fails to deliver the charismatic charm and equally emotive impact of Paloma’s début.

Album opener and lead single ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ sets the mood for the album, and a lot of what follows mirrors it’s self-deprecating tone, but where Paloma exceeds in this department is that there’s no pie-in-the-sky idealism being sought: merely the affection of someone special. ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ and indeed, the rest of the album can celebrate its ability to feel grounded as well as lofty. But that said, the same message can only be recycled so many times before the tail end of the album collapses in on itself till the only line to stand out from the closer ‘Streets of Glory’ is “The more you talk, the less it means”, a crippling fate for a song that, when listened to in its own right can stand head and shoulders above a number of the tracks that precede it.

Perhaps the most appropriate song for the next single release is ‘30 Minute Love Affair’, which forms a pleasant uptempo ballad with modern riffs married with the classic, melancholic richness Paloma is known for. Her colourfully theatrical past is held off until the third track, Black & Blue, where her elegantly spun lyrics soften the blow of the bluntest observations – “I know man who fills his emptiness with strangers”. A less artsy pop star may have said something quite different, and this beguiling quality of Paloma’s lyrics is one of the fresher, better examples of why she was wrong to be overlooked in 2009. However, the abstract references can lead the album to veer wildly out of control as Paloma searches for metaphors and similes to realize her emotive angst, the result being that you wish she’d actually stick to being more literal (see: ‘Stone Cold Sober’), because by the time ‘Agony’s “Give me the angels and all their whispered wishes” rolls around it’s not so much a touching request for a lover as a chunk of overbearingly sentimental rubbish that makes no sense to anyone other than the person speaking, but worst of all, ‘Agony’ just doesn’t have the same classiness, both vocally and musically, that ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ has, despite the message in both songs being nigh-on identical.

Further down the album, look out for ‘Beauty of the End’ which, whilst it can be considered another instance where Paloma’s sizeable voice and acrobatic pitching malforms the delicateness of its melody, at least half-successfully resonates with prescient and urgent lyrics. She still has the irksome tendency to hang on to syllables that can’t return as much as she gives, thus hindering her to the extreme as you progress down the track-list; it becomes nearly unbearable on the blasé ‘Freedom’. In fact, the whole album appears to be structured more around Paloma’s voice than any of the songs from her début were, and this wouldn’t be a problem if Paloma could stick to a single melody, but recently she appears to have developed the uncontrollable urge to venture beyond the safer prescribed melodies of otherwise simplistically beautiful songs like ‘Let Your Love Walk In’ and ‘When You’re Gone’, and instead pummel home messages that are snuggly in bed by the first tracks with a booming vocal performance whose subtlety is compromised in a bid to show off supposed soul. It’s undeniably refreshing to hear real voice once in a while, but unlike similarly big-voiced female singer-songwriters like Amy Macdonald and Adele, her maturity is belied by the distinct lack of control over her voice.

Some of Paloma’s best balladry has been when she appears at her most vulnerable (see: the title track from her début), and ‘Fall To Grace’s equivalent – the moment where she finds herself most emotionally vulnerable – ‘Just Be’, does well to replicate that subdued feel for the most-part (opting for a single piano accompaniment instead of a another swirling crescendo). We see her devotion on a far more softly affectionate level than ever before – “Let’s be unhappy forever/Cause there’s no-one in this world I’d rather be unhappy with”. On paper it seems barely different to many of her other declarations of love but when she reigns in the vocals to a more intimate scale it becomes clear that ‘Fall To Grace’s wide-screen cinematic drama has compromised Paloma’s rawness; it’s buffed away the sassiness and the humour that decanted and modernised her 50’s dancehall style.

‘Fall To Grace’ isn’t the album many fans will appreciate on the same level as ‘Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?’ simply because, in the crudest way possible, it’s simply not varied enough. Whereas Paloma’s début balanced balladry with an impish flair for original ideas in ‘Stone Cold Sober’, ‘Romance Is Dead’ and ‘Upside Down’, ‘Fall To Grace’ sees her traipse through lead-heavy ballads one after the other, barely managing to retain a listener’s interest beyond track five.

Digital Release: May 28, 2012
Physical Release: May 28, 2012

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