You could count Girls Aloud, Little Mix, One Direction and Olly Murs as the main talent show success stories in the U.K., yet none of them have achieved the same longevity as Will Young. He was victorious in 2002 on Pop Idol and has escaped the talent show curse. 17 years on, Young releases his seventh album at a time when The Voice is yet to have one notable winner, and recent X Factor champions struggle to maintain interest long enough to reach a first album.
Young gained respect by not doing predictable covers and by forging his own path with the career solidifying single ‘Leave Right Now’ and his second album, Friday’s Child. He gained creative control and freedom by stepping away from Simon Cowell’s dated approach.
After years of almost-great albums and some striking singles (‘Leave Right Now’, ‘Who Am I’, ‘All Time Love’, ‘You & I’), Young finally put out an album that justified his talent show survivor status with 2011’s Echoes. It was a classy mix of moody electro-pop ballads and heartfelt sophisti-pop upbeats. Teaming up with genius producer Richard X was a smart move, and it accentuated Young’s talents. After switching labels, Young returned four years later with the muddled 85% Proof — an album that felt like a backwards step, despite a few highlights and some great videos (one of Young’s trademarks). Young has since said that he’s not sure how the album even came out, his crumbling mental state. A complete breakdown followed, with Young hinting that he might quit music for good.
Thankfully, Young is in a better place now. His enjoyment of a one-off live performance exceeded his expectations, and he headed back to the studio. He’s back with Richard X and some of the songwriters he worked with in the past (including ‘Leave Right Now’ collaborator Eg White). Lexicon shares some similarities to what made Echoes so rewarding.
Unlike 85% Proof, Lexicon is a stylistically-cohesive listen. The upbeat electro songs sit comfortably next to the melancholic ballads. The first single, All the Songs, is the former and rivals ‘Jealousy’ as his best lead. His warm, comforting voice delicately proclaims, “walking along, everything’s good and I haven’t felt this in so long”. When the pulsing synth-led throb of the chorus lands, it’s a classic tears-on-the-dancefloor anthem as he sings, “all this pain, when will it end? all the songs remind me of you”. Young sounds inspired again.
Recent single, ‘My Love’,is almost as strong with its funky wobbling bass-line, bubbling synths and infectious chorus. As before, he takes his cues from some of the greatest pop music, old and new (Pet Shop Boys, George Michael, Years & Years). The spinning synths and balearic atmosphere on ‘Forever’ is another strong single candidate. Young’s impressive falsetto on the chorus is joined by a delicious house-piano line. Songs like these stay true to an earlier studio image posted by Richard X captioned, “all bangers”.
The main difference between Lexicon and Echoes (and perhaps the reason Young opted out of going with the album’s working title, Echoes 2) is that this relies slightly more on ballads. ‘Scars’ is full of dramatic strings and a yearning melody. ‘Get Me Dancing’ is a misleading title for a soulful ballad that’s more in-line with the later works of Sade. A few more songs like ‘All the Songs’ would be welcome, but the strength of the songwriting and lustrous production holds the momentum.
The subtle funk on ‘Ground Running’ is a nice shift, with its gritty guitar-line and bouncing rhythm. Young sounds cool and confident as he sings,“trying to drag me down, trouble gonna come my way, we can hit the ground running”. ‘Freedom’ is a standout thanks to Young’s lovelorn voice — it recalls Erasure at their most naked. The chopped up vocals and sliding keyboards in the chorus are an inspired bit of futuristic pop. The rolling piano-led rhythm on the gospel influenced ‘Faithless Love’ blends with Young’s confessional lyrics — “I sold my soul when I took the wrong road home”.
Lexicon isn’t quite the revelation that Echoes was, nevertheless it’s a strong release from someone who has battled depression and anxiety to find musical passion again. Not only has Young justified his return to the pop world with the quality of the music, he’s shown why two decades into his career, he’s still worth caring about.
Lexicon is out now on Cooking Vinyl.