Berlin is gray, drizzly. Paris was clear-skied, beautiful. Fresh off a flight from the French capital to the German capital, Englishman Jamie Lidell has just set his bags down in his hotel room and is off in search of some lunch. Over a dodgy mobile phone connection as he walks the familiar strasses and platzes, the 34-year-old Lidell is personable and engaging, his dry wit coming through during our initial pleasantries. But there's a noticeably melancholy twinge to his voice.
"You've caught me in a bit of a blue mood," he admits. It's the first time in quite a while that he's set foot in Berlin — his home city for nine years, and where his latest album, Jim, was conceived, written, and partially recorded. "It dawned on me that I don't have a house here anymore, so I'm really a visitor here and psychologically it's very strange. It's just like splittin' up with an old girlfriend or something and going to visit them later and going, 'Well, I still have thoughts for you, but not love.' I don't wanna get really boozy, because I've been off the booze for a couple of months, just kind of a personal mission of mine, but the way it is outside and the way I feel right now, this is the perfect fucking moment."
On its surface, Jim, Lidell's third (and best) solo album since debuting in 2000 with Muddlin Gear, couldn't be more the opposite of the singer's current mood. It's sunny, upbeat, warm, groovealicious — full of hip-shake and shoe-shimmy. Its well-appointed opener, "Another Day," is classic Motown. Its piano, tambourine, horns, woodwinds, and gospel-inflected female backing "woah-ohh-ohhhhhs" shuffle and strut together like perfectly synchronized dance moves. "Little Bit of Feel Good" gets down and dirtier, bringing in some wah-guitar chops, talk-box, and clavinet. "Figured Me Out" is a booty-moving slice of post-Jamiroquai synth-funk. And fuzzed-out Mod-pop ripper "Hurricane" achieves in three minutes the kind of righteous rock-soul synthesis Lenny Kravitz has failed to nail in nearly two decades of trying.
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Dig a little deeper, though, and most of the tunes are wistful and blue at their core. Love songs nearly one and all, they speak to worry, doubt, and miscommunication rather than everlasting bliss. "I used to scream when a whisper would do ... now I'm letting silence do the talking," goes a line in "Another Day." The bright, bouncy R&B of "Where D'You Go," meanwhile, cloaks misery: "That's why I cry/Gonna hafta get along without you."
Throughout, Lidell sells his sentiments passionately and earnestly with a voice that's buttery gold, belting and crooning like he's possessed by a litany of soul legends. Some like to term it "blue-eyed soul," describing a Caucasian who pours it out like Stevie, Otis, or the Reverend Al (Green, not Sharpton). Others don't beat around the bush: A writer for SF Weekly recently called Lidell "the blackest-singing white man since Rick Astley." To my ears, he sounds more like Daryl Hall than anyone else.
"I haven't got quite as good a haircut as him; I can't quite afford it," Lidell deadpans. "If I move to Los Angeles, I might be able to get it on. Well, me and Daryl, I guess we could be mates. I was always quite a fan of 'Maneater'; that was quite all right. What else is good ... 'I Can't Go for That,' of course. Music like that is just pure nostalgia. I think it just kind of transforms the world around you a little bit, like a sonic perfume. It's kind of intoxicating, it does something, it leaves an indelible mark ... or at least a semipermanent stain."
Lidell is seriously considering moving to L.A. — part of Jim was recorded there. Being a man without a home is clearly unsettling, but the singer is in the middle of a few other transitions. As a songwriter, he has learned to hone his craft; unlike the more haphazard, spontaneous approach he took with previous albums, for Jim he wrote and rewrote all the songs before ever hitting the recording studio. And now he's performing with a live band backing him, as opposed to the past six years or so, when he took the stage as a one-man band with his samplers, sequencers, that magic voice, and a penchant for improvisation.
He insists he's not really a "band guy" and worries that having to stay mostly true to his arrangements so as not to confuse his bandmates could lead to the dreaded "jukebox ritual" night after night. Still, Lidell explains he could do justice to the rich, organic nature of the new material only by performing it with other musicians, and he's trying to make the best of it.
"It's a chance to bring something new and fresh to it, really make the songs come alive again and grow," he says, audibly munching on something. "A good, well-written song is a really strange, powerful thing because it can handle all kinds of mutations and somehow remain recognizable through it all — like a really strong face that you can see through the crowd, even if it's got a disguise. So with the band, I've been enjoying the process of dressing them up and seeing how far I can push them before people lose sight of their character."
Lidell says, rather matter-of-factly, his audiences have been split down the middle regarding his employment of a full band. He's been through this before: Starting out as an IDM-style all-instrumental artist (Muddlin Gear's skittery, clattering textures sound more like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher than anything else), he alienated some fans and brought in new ones in 2005 with Multiply (a strangely addictive, somewhat Beck-like cross between neo-soul and his earlier avant-noise). Jim effectively severs all ties with his electronic past.
And he's seen critics both gush over and savage the new album — the positive writeups have hailed his retro-soul as classic and timeless, while some of the harsher ones have knocked him as a pure copycat or questioned his sincerity. "I know what I'm doing is genuine and true, but the fact that you're trying to stake a claim on some sort of sonic real estate leaves you vulnerable to more precise, cutting attacks," he notes. "If journalists feel like you're trying to compare yourself to the greats, they'll use that against you: 'Oh, you wanna fucking step into the ring with the heavyweights? Well, let's see how long you fucking last!' It feels a little bit like that in its most brutal moments."
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Lidell adds with a wry laugh that he tends to ignore the good and focus on the harsh; in a twisted sort of way, he says, it validates his creative insecurity. "As an artist, you kind of want to have a beatdown — you read a couple of the bad reviews and go, 'It's true, so true; they can read me like a book.' It's sad to admit, but it's true. Plus, it's hard for an English person to ever give themselves props."
He pauses for a moment and then laughs again. "But don't get me wrong — I do enjoy what I'm doing, and I'm really happy that I'm leaving little marks behind me in the sand. In my bleakest moments, I think, Fuck it, I have done something worthwhile."
And I remind him, as the conversation comes to a close, in addition to putting out a terrific album, he's got a sunny summer in the States in front of an ever-growing fanbase to look forward to. Plus, this fall, there's a UK tour opening for none other than Elton John.
"Yeah, things are looking up," he replies. "Also, I've just had a mini pizza. The broccoli is settling in. I can feel it's going to be a good day after all."