The last thing Daniel Merriweather wants is to be compared to Amy Winehouse. And that’s perfectly understandable; what artist needs media coverage of their work that consistently fashions links to a well-known, better peer? But when you’re white, not American, possess an emotion-drenched, Otis Redding-inspired vocal style, and Mark Ronson (the man responsible for producing half of Winehouse’s Back to Black) laces every single one of your tracks with that familiar Stax Records-meets-Phil Spector-meets-Hip Hop sound, you’re sort of asking for it.
Hailing from Melbourne, Australia (not London?!), Daniel Merriweather’s rise from down-under obscurity to potential Soul superstardom might have seemed unlikely, were it not for the unprecedented success of his not-so-distant, musical older cousin, Miss. Winehouse, and the almost immediate procession of like-minded/Caucasian artists that followed (i.e. Adele, Duffy, etc). Blue-eyed Soul is in ladies and gentlemen, and as long as these artists are putting out quality shit, I’m down with it. Besides, Merriweather’s been an active musician since the early 2000’s; there’s no sense of any sort of calculated opportunism going on with Merriweather’s debut album, the charming Love & War; just a handful of knockout compositions, some mediocre ones, a couple forgettables, and a big, wide-open space where Merriweather’s singular musical personality should have been, but isn’t.
Overall…not bad for a first try.
When Love & War is good, it’s really good, particularly it’s at times flawless balladry. The Elton John-inspired “For Your Money,” is the perfect opener, taking it’s time and building steadily to a righteous climax. Later, “Water and a Flame,” a gorgeous duet with Adele, works marvelously. Everything comes together perfectly, from the swirling strings and haunting backing vocals, to the masterful, complementary vocal performances from both participants (although Adele outshines our man Merriweather here). “Giving Everything Away For Free” will definitely remind you of Prince, but effectively so, maintaining a fragile, elegant musicality that effortlessly supports Merriweather’s solemn testament to unrequited love. He croons, “Everyday that I love her/I kill myself/It happens over and over/There’s no one else/And I’ve tried to forget her/But look at me/Giving everything away for free.” Mark Ronson can still conjure something truly magical as a producer, and deserves equal credit for Love & War’s many high points. These songs have an irresistible warmth and depth sonically; the somber, Otis Redding-reminiscent “Live By Night” has a hazy, dreamlike quality to it, like a smoke-filled room.
The album’s clear standout is its balladic centerpiece and most recent single, “Red.” Beginning with gentle acoustic guitar, the song builds gorgeously, accented by mournful strings and a steady backbeat. The chorus is pure, emotional catharsis, with Merriweather lamenting bitterly “I can’t do this by myself/All of these problems/They’re all in your head/And I can’t be somebody else/You took something perfect/And painted it red.” “Red” is a surefire hit, if you ask me, and clearly Merriweather’s finest moment on Love & War.
Of course, the album is not without its failings, particularly some undercooked compositions, like the “California Dreaming”-reappropriating “Could You” (ala Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own”) and the admirable-but-bland, Stevie Wonder-styled, socially-conscious finale “All of the People.” And while Love & War achieves a potent synergy between the rich production and impassioned vocal performances, it seriously lacks the kind of fascinatingly-complex personality and painfully-detailed lyrical content that made Back to Black so definitive and essential.
So as it stands, Love & War is more than a respectable debut for Merriweather. It may not separate him from the pack the way a truly classic release would, but it’s impossible not to at least like.
But if he digs a little deeper next time, this Australian soulman could have something truly powerful on his hands.