“Love & War” (Sony) -- 3.5 STARS
On “Impossible,” the second track from his debut album “Love & War,” Daniel Merriweather sings, “I know I said some corny lines / That you probably heard a thousand times.” Agreed. But it’s no surprise that producer Mark Ronson’s R&B protégé isn’t exactly unpredictable. Much like Ronson’s previous collaborator, Amy Winehouse, Merriweather makes music that’s all about immediacy. Every song on “Love & War” feels like a single, relying on a simple, catchy melody that inevitably builds to a climactic but predictable bridge. If you’re 30 seconds into a track and not bobbing your head, you might as well skip it.
Merriweather, however, certainly deserves a chance to prove himself. Though he has the unenviable job of following Winehouse and Adele out of Ronson’s stable, if each song is left to stand on its own merits, Merriweather’s work proves to be exactly what he was presumably trying to deliver: a collection of good-to-great soul-pop songs. It’s a hit-or-miss endeavor, but Merriweather hits more than he misses.
The opening track, “For Your Money,” suggests a different direction from what the album actually ends up taking. The Bowie-esque piano intro, relatively abstract lyricism, and Sean Lennon’s fuzzy electric guitar suggest a rock edge the rest of the album simply doesn’t deliver. However, it is certainly an excellent opener, and while the tracks to come are different, they do not necessarily disappoint.
Sometimes, even songs that seem to have gone off-track are salvaged by unexpected contrivances from Ronson and Merriweather’s well-stocked bag of tricks. For instance, “Change,” the lead single, overcomes a chorus that evokes John Mayer with its hopelessly generic political statements—“Ain’t nothing gonna change / If nobody’s gonna wake up and start asking who’s in charge.” The infectious piano loop—worthy of early Kanye West—irresistibly fun brass accents, and merrily chirpy background singing make up for the lyrical missteps.
“Water and a Flame” runs a risk inherent in featuring Adele—namely, that Adele will steal the show—but avoids disaster by pairing the two singers toward the end, making it more of a seamless collaboration than a chance for one to outshine the other. “Could You,” meanwhile, has a chorus that references “My Girl,” but its bluesy guitar work and “doo-bee” falsetto bridge separate it from The Temptations’ original. The success of this bridge section is characteristic of an album whose best lyrical moments are impassioned, wordless cries.
It seems that words aren’t quite Merriweather’s thing, nor do they need to be. Standout track “Impossible” is proof enough that Merriweather doesn’t need to say anything particularly compelling to craft a memorable soul-pop number. A playfully hypnotic bass line, punctuating guitar and gratuitous strings give the cliché chorus—“There ain’t nothing, nothing / Nothing impossible for your love”—a renewed immediacy.
At times Merriweather reaches beyond Ronson’s impeccably polished production to make something that feels new, as with the self-deprecating amble of a highlight, “Cigarettes,” and the surprisingly poignant, slowly-building “Live by Night.” Though many choruses are frustratingly unoriginal, “Chainsaw” thoroughly breaks this pattern with the bizarre refrain, “Giving myself to you is like giving myself to a chainsaw.” Though this line falls flat, Merriweather has the benefit of a sound big enough to command some melodrama, and, even when he overreaches, he overreaches with a brazenness that’s fun to listen to and more than a little endearing.
Final track “Giving Everything Away for Free” is one of those overreaches, ultimately a little too stripped-down for Merriweather’s style and a little too egotistical to communicate the feeling of selfless love he’s going for. But by then, “Love & War” has already succeeded, and it’s easy to spot him a throwaway track. Those looking for Winehouse’s male counterpart may be disappointed—Merriweather has an expressive voice with a surprising upper register and a certain reckless charm to boot, but he ultimately can’t match Winehouse for alluring audacity. Even so, what Merriweather proves is that with a catchy melody, impassioned vocals, and some soul, the same corny lines still sound good the thousandth time.