Nerina Pallot and I go way back. In 2001, Semisonic surprised everyone at that year’s V Festival by being good fun (no, really). Pallot supported the band on their subsequent UK tour, and I was in the audience. Her first album, Dear Frustrated Superstar, had been released earlier in the year on Polydor, and the songwriting it offered was a significant cut above anything being offered by much of the rest of that sad year. If all the pinks and wet hair on the cover made you wonder if you should be buying it, the record nevertheless remained on rotation for years. ‘If I Know You’, ‘Patience’, ‘Watch Out Billie’, ‘Jump’, ‘Dear Frustrated Superstar, ‘Blood is Blood’ and ‘My Last Tango’ all remain actual fair dinkum favourite songs of mine. This is not a bad hit rate for a 13-track debut.
2001 also saw the release of Ryan Adams’s superlative Gold, and if that record was followed by a slew of albums from alt.country’s most prolific serial disappointment, Pallot took as opposite a career path as possible: she was dropped by Polydor and further news of her proved thin on the ground. So when rumours of a comeback were succeeded by the release of 2005’s Fires, I confess to a sense of satisfaction: not only had Pallot apparently beaten the system, it was an even better collection of songs. Another four years gone, her third album, The Graduate, arrived on October 5th.
The quintessential Pallot song is simply a clever pop song. On The Graduate, it pains me to report, Pallot might take all this too far. She is now aiming, too, for the clever pop production (which here she attempts to do all by herself). ‘Everything’s Illuminated!’, ‘Real Late Starter’ and ‘The Right Side’ begin The Graduate with a trilogy of synthy, bassy, ballsy sing-alongs. ‘Real Late Starter’ has a catchy chorus, to be sure, but Pallot seems suspended between wanting to write dancey little pop songs and retaining some of her previous eloquence; so, bizarrely, she quotes Jonathan Safran Foer but loses her lyrical touch. (“I’m a loaded gun,” she sings on ‘The Right Side’. “You flip my switch, you watch me run.” Some gun!)
Pallot isn’t unrecognisable on The Graduate. Following the opening triumvirate, ‘Human’ skips over its preachy concept with charm, conviction and warmth. But then we get ‘I Don’t Want To Go Out’, in which we are treated to a slightly thin Scissor Sisters off-cut. The record doesn’t really develop any consistency until ‘Coming Home’, which again can’t resist the unconvincing pop production but is at least a strong enough song to survive it. ‘It Starts’ benefits from a beautiful lyric, ‘When Did I Become Such A Bitch’ is both catchy and wry (the usual Pallot trick, deployed in the most successful song on the record), whilst ‘Cigarette’ and ‘It Was Me’ alike share a statelier air which offers them space rather than suffocating them.
It isn’t that Pallot should be trying to remake Fires, or treading the same old ground. (Understandably, she has said she was bored with the same old singer-songwriter schtick.) It isn’t even that any of the record is actively bad – her voice is still as clear as ever, the arrangements usually strong, and half the record’s songs are approaching rather fine. It’s that she is so consciously searching for new turf that she makes some beginner’s mistakes ordinarily beneath her talent and poise: ‘Everything’s Illuminated!’ has cracking (if nonsensical) choruses, but little to connect them; ‘I Don’t Want To Go Out’ lacks the thick mix necessary for a song of its type; and, anyway, there is a constant sense that many of the songs don’t quite fit the production they’ve been given. This tension even colours the album’s better songs, of which fewer than usual equal the achivements of the past.
This is still an OK record, and my fondness for Pallot is far from all used up – many of her contemporaries couldn’t even hope to do better than The Graduate. Naturally, I’ll be around for the next album. I’d ask for less of a wait, but I did that last time.