There is one dirty great elephant-in-the-room sized contrast on Conor Maynard’s shiny new product- the gulf between his producers’ sonic innovation and ambition, and Maynard's own largely pedestrian vocal contribution. This disparity has long been a regular theme in RnB/dance/pop , and can be traced back as far as Phil Spector (maybe before? I’d love to know if anyone has any suggestions), but it’s been a while since I’ve heard something where the chasm between vocal and music has been quite so gaping. Conor is white bread. He’s an autotuned clone – should that be clown? – who struggles to muster the tiniest dregs of emotion. Apparently he’s English, but there’s absolutely nothing about his performance that marks him as such—to be honest, I have my suspicions as to whether he’s even human. When dull, racially indeterminate flavour of the month Rita Ora pops up on Better Than You it’s like hearing two lumpen sexbots serenade each other in IMAX 3D, polished, bombastic, expensive and utterly hollow.
If Contrast was a by numbers pop album, this criticism would be so much so-what? The music industry has always grown fat on vapid sentiment, and a fresh sausage from the meat grinder is nothing to be shocked by—the thing is, there’s some genuinely interesting moments - Can’t Say No is a great slice of bass booming urban pop, taking the 808 booms championed by America’s crunk South and giving them a lick of radio melody. Pharrell Williams appears on Lift Off, and shows that his inventiveness with The Neptunes can be just as easily applied to the dance pop of a new decade, delivering a house beat that shucks and shuffles in a deft footed dance, while Maynard impersonates JT impersonating MJ; bleaching out Jacko’s magic just that lil bit more.
Special mention must go to Headphones, a piece of breath takingly cynical songwriting. I may be reading too much into this one, but a track espousing the joy of headphones from an artist who is owned by Universal, who coincidentally own a large share in Dr Dre’s Beats line of headphones (which |Maynard can be seen wearing in previous videos), feels like one long, gruesome (admittedly kinda funky) advert- they even manage to crow bar in a couple of name checks to songs by other Universal artists (Black Eyed Peas principally). It all smacks of record label execs cracking the bubbly and congratulating themselves on securing profit lines in the new millennium. Apparently music is no longer good enough to stand alone, to survive it has to be a gateway to consumption. Expect a slew of songs explicitly referencing headphone brands in the next couple-a years folks...
To all intents and purposes, Maynard isn’t English. Instead he exists in the digital ether, his voice a smooth stream of gigabyte, the bland syrup of globalisation- his mediocrity will probably work to his advantage- with a minimum amount of alienating local signifiers he can be marketed to a mass audience, and I’d say Contrast could well sell a ton. Still, I’m left craving an artist who can match RnB and pop’s restless musical invention, who can deliver something approaching humanity, and who occasionally, just occasionally, hits a bum note.