Though sonically on point, the folk singer's debut album is a game of two halves with middling lyricism revealing little of the artist himself
The last time I saw Donal Scullion play, he was being carried at shoulder height and upside down by the Pony Dance Company. Impressively he nailed every note and equally impressively they never dropped him on his head. Clearly, Scullion is not a man afraid of taking risks, which is why I find the reasonableness and good taste of his first solo outing, Superpowers, so hard to take. At least half of the time.
'When The Good Times Come' opens with a blast of farting brass. There is barrel house piano and when Scullion’s voice drifts in it is measured and tonally precise. It's a New Orleans funeral dirge paddled along by the splashiest of cymbals. This could be a Hugh Laurie ersatz blues tune; you can imagine Jools Holland tickling ivories over the coda as bourbon glasses clink, beads are swapped and bearded Irishmen hug each other in beer adverts, their eyes a-twinkling.
'Eggshells' is a confessional relationship song, but it’s peppered with ungainly lines like 'When your negativity can bring me down sometimes / you can fly if you just use your wings'. The song sounds lovely, never less than beautifully produced, with a Rhodes piano working out the major chords, while Scullion frowns and works his way through his shopping list of grievances. But it all lacks a bit of sparkle.
His voice: a sincere, soulful thing with just the right amount of beetle-browed grit should be served with more exciting words. There are lines here that could have been cribbed from The Lighthouse Family songbook. The brass and tweaked guitar coda – with top-notes of clarinet – is sublime. But when the music is this assured, it only serves to illustrate the paucity of the lyrics – it’s like putting a fancy frame around a phone-pad doodle.
'What Have You Done For Me Lately', which, it transpires, is not a Janet Jackson cover, is worse still, resembling Michael Buble doing 'Love Cats' or one of Paul McCartney’s 'whimsical' numbers. Once again it’s beautifully played, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the author. It’s a collection of glib Brill Building clichés married to inescapably capable musicianship.
I’m in the throes of despair by this point. And then '(Last Time I take a) Bottle on a Date' comes on and it’s like a different, interested, interesting singer has entered the frame. Squaring off against a Randy Newman piano phrase, Scullion’s voice here is brilliantly controlled, skipping around corners as he spits out his tale of woe: 'Well I woke up in the bathroom of a house I didn’t know / it was one of those parties so the people let it go'. This is a song with an idea in it, a sustained, proper idea, with a pay-off. There is even a boke joke at the end.
'Disillusioned Angel' (despite its horrible title) is better still with its odd, dissonant brass and the shuddering, dubby reverb on the drums. Musically, it is the most satisfying thing on the record, a lengthy stroll out of Scullion’s comfort zone: the 'angelic chorus' set against the strings is particularly effective, especially when he scores through it with an under-used falsetto. It’s the sound of Scullion stretching himself until you can hear the vertebrae crack, and it’s all the better for it.
'Ten Thousand Types of Confused' continues the trend: lyrically deft, personal, it sounds as though the ideas are taken from Scullion’s life, not the Great American Songbook. These words lift the songs out of themselves, so they feel meant rather than just arrived at, distilled from a series of impeccable influences.
'Superpowers' starts with pleasantly discordant guitar. Scullion's voice is plaintive, the vowels stretching towards the horizon. It has a defeated, parched quality and contains the line 'I apologise for this thought violation', which is not something I thought I’d ever hear in a song. The keening falsetto is back and it really is a lovely thing. He should bring it out and dust it down more often.
It is an unexpectedly down-beat ending to the album and buoys up the notion that if this were a vinyl record, I would have side two on repeat rotation. It’s excellent, a world away from the foggy notions of the earlier songs – a curate’s egg, then, a game of two halves. Though it seems an odd thing to say, this being a solo set, I’d have liked to have heard a lot more of Donal Scullion.