Review: Calum Scott – Only Human

A Mixed Bag

While certain numbers, such as 'Hotel Room' or 'Only You', stand out as gems, Only Human is plagued with the feeling that Scott's vocal has been forced on to up-tempo tracks. The end result is an album that loses its narrative and clear sense of artistic direction.

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After rising through Britain’s Got Talent in 2015, Calum Scott now brings us his debut album, Only Human, following on from ‘Dancing on My Own’, his 2016 version of Robyn’s hit which earned him a Brit Award. Only Human follows the same stylistic approach as ‘Dancing on My Own’: it’s a series of love ballads – some more stripped back, while others slightly more up-tempo. Whilst it has many admirable features and a handful of songs stand out as gems, the problem comes in its attempts to “force” Scott’s vocal and artistic identity into songs and beats it simply doesn’t match.

The main problem for me, though, is that Scott feels stylistically very similar to Sam Smith, yet his music fails to have the same effect (the message – and beat – becomes overly repetitive and causes songs to almost ‘blur’ into one another). ‘Rhythm Inside’ talks about putting “my hands up for love” but remains one-note throughout, while ‘What I Miss Most’ explores a deeper emotional connection with past loves though concludes that “maybe I’ll never know” what I miss most. The bridge of the song adds light-and-shade, allowing Scott to rebuild nicely back into the chorus. The only problem is the message and emotion that lies behind it becomes somewhat vacuous as it feels the track is forced to add an up-tempo beat.

The highlights of the album come in the numbers where Scott performs stripped-back. In ‘Hotel Room’ he exposes his powerful vocal against the piano and violin instrumental which slowly – and effectively – builds as the song progresses. He connects to the listener by talking about our desire to express feelings for those we love (“There’s nowhere to hide/ My eyes can’t hide tonight/ The way I feel for you), and it’s a refreshing break from the plethora of music that addresses break-up. Now we feel the excitement and anticipation of falling in love, with the close intimacy the stripped-back track provides. (Annoyingly, the album then moves on to ‘Good to You’ – another high beat number without any real sense of purpose or direction – which evaporates the feeling ‘Hotel Room’ develops rather than sustaining and continuing the narrative the listener goes on).

‘You Are the Reason’ is equally effective and emotionally packed as Scott exclaims that “he’d climb every mountain/ and swim every ocean” if he could be with the one he loves. I think that the defining feature of these slower numbers is Scott’s vocal. There is a sultry dimension to his voice, complemented by his powerful range, which pulls the listener in and makes his emotions believable. I know that critics normally hate an album of ballads, or softer songs, at the expense of showing diversity, but I think Scott would have been better off exploiting this avenue. The up-tempo numbers are not nearly as vocally impressive, nor emotionally powerful, as their slowed down counterparts. Sometimes an artists should find and exploit their niche. The only shame is that the recently released duet version, featuring Leona Lewis, has not made the album: their voices complemented each other perfectly and made for a track that could compete against the Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé ‘Perfect’ duet.

Not all the up-tempo numbers miss the mark: ‘Come Back Home’ uses a fast beat to reflect the idea of running after the lover who leaves you rather cleverly. The problem is that Scott doesn’t seem to have realised how to apply his artistic identity to this genre and style. ‘Human’ – just like ‘Rhythm Inside’ and ‘What I Miss Most’ has the same problem of losing Scott’s vocal amongst the vocal assault of different synthetic beat components: by the end of the song nothing has made an impact and you are more than happy to move on. ‘Give Me Something’ meanwhile explores not receiving enough from your lover, but does so with a club-beat backing. The message is entirely lost and leaves the whole song feeling confused. There is a good reason Sam Smith and Adele choose not to express ideas about love and relationships in dance numbers: Scott should heed the warning, or create an album that creates a narrative where dance numbers can be included where they feel appropriate.

What makes a nice difference from the exploration of love, is ‘Only You’, a number dedicated to celebrating his best friend, who helped him through times of bullying and isolation (“Only you could see I was hurting/ Only you cared to understand/ always know I’d do the same/ I’d do anything for you my friend”). The song then uses the sound of clapping to create the sense of community and support that friendship delivers. It is a touching moment in the album, and one that I’m sure will resonate with Scott’s LGBT+ fans who have equally felt isolated, or been bullied, and relied on their friends to pull them through. It’s a celebration of the value of these relationships and is something no other performer has done.

Weirdly, Scott ends with a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’ rather than ending with a self-penned track. But against the acoustic guitar, Scott seems to ironically realise where his strengths lie: in exposing the rifts and vulnerabilities of his voice and allowing the listener to feel the emotions of the lyrics he sings. The album ends perfectly because it ends how it began, and how it should have been through all thirteen tracks. Scott seems to have felt the need to show he can be the jack-of-all-trades: slow ballads, dance numbers and feel-good tracks. Thankfully, a few gems – mostly the slow ballad numbers – stop this album being passed over but Scott best the heed the warning that it’s not best to be a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Because music needs masters.

‘Only Human’ is out tomorrow via Capitol Records 


About Author

Philosopher and Historian and major pop-fan. You can find me listening to most pop in the charts (Beyoncé and Sia are most certainly goddesses), as well as some modern jazz and classical and enjoing the occasional trip to the theatre. I'm also interested in the repurcussions of the representation of sex in modern-day media! And I might be a fan of the X Factor. Sorry, I can't help it...

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