On the whole, the 2010s have produced some much-needed revisions of what a modern pop star is. Of course artists like Billie Eilish continue to pile on levels of artifice that isn’t uncommon in the genre (albeit in much different ways than would be traditional), but someone like Lewis Capaldi sits at the complete other end of the spectrum entirely. A handful of genuine hits notwithstanding, he’s arguably become known the most for a social media personality that’s borderline guerilla in its approach to distancing itself from the micromanaged persona of a ‘regular’ pop star, to the point where the broadness of his appeal seems to lie in an unavoidably relatable everyman persona. It’s certainly good to have and separates Capaldi from other upcoming no-name singer-songwriters like Sam Fender, but it can also be seen as a ploy to distract from music that, to be honest, isn’t all that interesting. The sad, love-lost nature that permeates what seems like all of his songs so far hasn’t shown much depth, and while a title like Divinely Inspired To A Hellish Extent implies something that’s pushing the boat out a bit more, Capaldi hasn’t exactly provided much of a reason to believe that thus far.
And with that in mind, placing where Capaldi falls in the modern pop landscape feels like more of a chore than it’s ultimately worth. He certainly doesn’t make the light-but-literate fare of George Ezra, James Bay or even Ed Sheeran, and even when stacked next to perhaps his clearest comparison Rag’n’Bone Man, at least with him there’s a muscular bluesy tumult that peeks through to mask the fact that his music is effectively simple modern pop. Capaldi, meanwhile, seems all too content with playing down any form of distinction in favour of simpering pop patter, saccharine almost to the point of nauseating and lacking the good graces to inject even the slightest hint of compelling detail to make his moping seem at all earned. These are breakup ballads in the most skeletal and underdone fashion, only elevated from tepid hideousness by the fact that Capaldi’s rougher voice is a somewhat passable emotional nexus. Otherwise, describing this as ‘uninspired to a hellish extent’ hits the nail right on the head.
To at least give Capaldi a vestige of credit, his more untrained vocal style makes this all somewhat more appealing, with the bellowed hooks of Bruises and Someone You Love feeling largely in keeping with the less-micromanaged persona he’s previously displayed, and potentially being convincing examples that more could be done here if explored in a greater pop-rock or indie context. That feels even truer when some of these tracks are allowed to get a bit more roiling or rollicking; energy is not something this album has a surplus of, but the more muscular stomp of Grace and the sway of Maybe do hit with marginally more punch. But that’s more or less an exhaustive list of where Divinely Uninspired… goes right, with the rest simply devolving into drained mush that never modulates or even tries to touch on atmosphere beyond slow, sad prostration that gets horrifically boring in record time. Fragments of watery acoustic guitars end up being a highlight, simply because they break away from the monotony of fragile pianos, overweight percussion and a general lack of pace that turns this album into such a profound slog, only ever breaking for the equally ill-advised folk-pop dalliance of Hollywood. It’s genuinely difficult to tell these tracks apart at times, when piano ballads are overused into becoming a crutch to simply fill out space, and the whole affair becomes so bogged down in sounding emotional and heart-rending, when it’s really just a treacle-slow plod that rarely amounts to anything. Capped off with production that tries for epic, echoing swell like on Don’t Get Me Wrong but only ends up sounding like every other slow moment from dime-a-dozen indie-pop singer-songwriters, Capaldi ends up having really none of the likability or appeal that so many have affixed to him, just coming across as an incredibly average singer-songwriter that’s only cut out the middleman of having even slightly decent pacing or variety to wind up as straight-up boring.
Though, to see the full magnitude of that statement, it’s the writing that needs going over, apparently the aspect of Capaldi’s music that’s had so many fawning over him and his supposed sense of emotional pain that’s captivated so many. If that’s the case, clearly something rather major has been left off of this album, as Divinely Uninspired… is possible the most formulaic example of post-relationship mourning that’s been released in some time, where a vast majority sees Capaldi laying himself bare in a way that isn’t too subversive or deep, and makes sure to use just the right amount of broad, plaintive language to ensure that vaunted crossover appeal is never off the table. It’s easy to see where all the machinations to make him seem as appealing as possible are working as well, starting relatively early with Hold Me While You Wait and Someone You Love to establish himself as a tortured soul, before Lost On You frames him as the magnanimous but still broken victim of the breakup to get those sympathetic reactions flowing. It’d honestly feel a bit try-hard if it came across as if Capaldi was trying at all, instead of resorting to basic, relatable imagery that lacks any sort of deeper pathos that could possibly make these songs hit with any semblance of force. Sure, it’s all listenable and the sort of aural junk food that will ultimately go down well for similar post-breakup stupors, but for anything other than those incredibly specific circumstances, there’s nothing that’s satisfying about listening to Capaldi mope around the same nebulous situation over and over again.
Clearly that’s not the mindset that a lot of people have though; Capaldi is without question one of the biggest breakthrough artists of the last couple of years, and to those who’ve bought into the cult of personality that comes as a far-flung precursor to the music itself, this will undoubtedly scratch the itch for pop designed to feel more personal and intimate. But that ‘designed’ is rather telling, if only because this isn’t personal or intimate in the slightest, rather just safe and unthreatening to ensure that it’ll keep people busy long enough not to realise that Capaldi isn’t the revelatory force in pop that he’s currently being positioned as. Honestly, we’d make the joke about the title again, but that would only be playing to the same notion that lacking any sort of inspiration or ideas is a suitable method of success that Capaldi himself is riding off.
For fans of: Sam Smith, Rag’n’Bone Man, Ed Sheeran
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Divinely Uninspired To A Hellish Extent’ by Lewis Capaldi is out now on Universal Music.