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Jamie Woon, a commercially viable singer-songwriter on a major label and an intensely focused and imaginative dubstep fan with a gift for production, is on paper, caught between two seemingly different modes. A Brit School graduate and a Burial collaborator, a Polydor signee who is the son of new age musicians, it’s Jamie’s ability to reconcile the two sides of his music that his debut album, ‘Mirrorwriting’, rises or falls on.
Jamie composes the old-fashioned way, in his bedroom, on an acoustic guitar, then rewrites the song electronically, turning almost every acoustic sound into a processed one. As such, they work beautifully as songs, with choruses and melodies and lyrics – the first five tracks, from Night Air to Middle is as strong a run as you’re going to hear on an album this year. That each one is then processed electronically makes them interesting to listen to, especially because he’s gone for an almost over-the-top cleanliness, with a flawlessness on the ear that borders on the weird. His tracks, with their classic soul structure, faultless sheen and pure melody are close to new jack swing and the still emotionality of Tracy Chapman, interestingly.
There’s no straight dubstep tracks, and Jamie has never called himself a dubstep musician. But it’s there, in the record’s bones. There’s a brief sample of Digital Mystikz’s Haunted Memories, and it’s this era, and strain, of dubstep that ‘Mirrorwriting’ references – his take on the 21st century’s most important new music is not wobbles and drops, much less raves and rewinds. Rather, it’s a deeply interior music around a certain speed with a supreme sense of space that is well suited for headphones and nightwalks. It’s a music that stresses the personal and the ambiguous. It’s shy music, shifting music that has an inbuilt tendency towards abstraction. And it’s these sides of dubstep that soak ‘Mirrorwriting’, from the glitchy builds of Night Air to Spirits’s muffled, visceral drums. He sings a lot about wandering around London at night by himself, which is as “dubstep” a theme as you can imagine. Dubstep’s strange space, emotional and sonic, is not the genre, but it’s the theme.
Sometimes, you wish that he’d let these sonic ambitions ran away with him – there’s moments of real beauty and radicalism, as the sketched start to Spiral or the soundscaped ambition of Gravity’s introduction show. But every song ultimately works around a straight singer-songwriter template, meaning his ideas don’t get a chance to wander as freely as Jamie himself loves to, and the album, while really enjoyable and well-crafted, stops short of the depth and range it should have. Of course, a popular singer can make radical music that’s enjoyable to listen to and it’s stupid to think that there’s a division between ideas and melody. The best musicians, from Bob Dylan to The-Dream, make you feel a fool for thinking a divide exists, but on this record, they don’t feel like an entirely easy fit, and that’s a flaw.
Significantly, his voice – a plaintive, note-perfect falsetto strikingly close to the West-End stage – is left to breathe and is un-worked, lending a clarity and a simplicity that ‘James Blake’, for all its sonic glories, lacked. It also makes him a likable guy, and lets you get close to him. Songs have an eager quality, earnest even, and this unguarded and open voice is refreshing in an era of anonymous producers and shapeless intentions. And while ‘Mirrorwriting’ is not the important, game-changing record earlier singles hinted at, it’s a good one, which is significant in itself.