Amy MacDonald was originally billed as a bright young hope of British – particularly Scottish – singer-songwriting. Sadly I was underwhelmed by the previous albums. MacDonald’s style is ‘folk-rock’, pure folk in spirit wrapped in a studio gloss of rock. MacDonald’s rather mannered vocals hit all the big notes and she sounds the part if nothing else. If Patti Smith covered The Proclaimers greatest hits with a big New York album production, this is what you’d get. Like it or not.
The opener, 4th of July arrives as a folksy ‘Springsteen-lite’ track. It’s all 1970’s vocal, brass and strings, a throwback track that rings alarm bells. Pride is anthemic, fast and uplifting. It also has every lyrical cliché imaginable.
Slow it Down doesn’t – its fast and shows off a bit of modern production gloss. It’s a familiar diatribe against modern life. The Furthest Star didn’t even register first time around.
The Game is all about fate. It’s Amy’s equivalent of a Nashville power ballad; destiny and sacrifice and straining at the seams to lift an album already labouring to be bigger than it is. Then, Across the Nile blunders on, blatantly dressed up as a bombastic U2 album track. Which is fine if you like U2. From the 90’s.
The Days of being Young and Free is a quirky little mid-tempo ballad straight off the sound track of an American Indie movie. MacDonald’s lower register is pure Tanita Tikaram; yet another 90’s singer song-writer, which reminded me there’s not so much that’s original or distinctive thusfar, except for MacDonald’s upper register like chalk on a blackboard.
Left that Body Long Ago suddenly goes all Scottish (or ‘Scot-tosh’ as a friend interjected), a lot of Highland folk wailing and rolling r’s. I’m sure it sounds better over some soft-focus vistas of glens and Trossocks, but that’s further than most of us want to travel to listen to an album. I’m also sure the title track Life in a Beautiful Light will make a bonny theme song for a Scottish TV serial. In the same way, Human Spirit passes amiably by.
The Green and the Blue; perhaps I’m just too much of a Sassenach, but by this time, the tide of Scottish sentimentality was getting a bit cloying and Amy’s hard-working drummer was giving me a headache. Worse, there’s football commentary playing over the end of the track.
In the End should be a great sign-off, but by the time you hear the chorus – “There’s so much more that I could be… I’ll just dream until we get there in the end…” – that’s exactly what you’re thinking about MacDonald’s career.
It’s all competently done and I feel a little guilty that I don’t like it more. It’s earnest, honest folk-rock with plenty of energy and a home-spun integrity. But it’s still packaged to the hilt for the commercial cross-over folk-rock market, ready to wash over you on late-night BBC Radio 2. I spent most of the running time wishing instead for a decent K T Tunstall album.
Which is where I would have stopped, except…. the edition of the album I have has a bunch of bonus acoustic versions, which is where MacDonald comes back into her own. Stripped down to guitar and vocals, the five songs have an immediacy that the electric versions drown out. No longer competing with the band and all that clutter, MacDonald’s vocals soar. Let’s have the ‘unplugged’ album we deserve. SC