A Happy Place
On the final track of 2007's Pictures, a cover of Leonard Cohen's In My Secret Life, Katie Melua sang of missing a loved one. Three years on, she opens this fourth album with I'd Love to Kill You: "I'd love to kill you as you eat / The pleasure would taste so sweet". She's said that The House may shock fans who've followed her since her 2003 breakthrough, and such lyrical wickedness might imply she's been through quite the stylistic sea change.
As if. The House is as box-ticking of design as even the most fair-weather of fans should expect from an artist who's never pushed at any creative envelope. At their worst these arrangements are lazy to the point of absolute stupor, as lively as a well-fed fatso snoozing in front of the Queen's Christmas speech. This should allow Melua's voice to shine through, but she can sound racked by tracheal rigor mortis, a whisper escaping where a little more of the wow factor that first attracted the ears of Dramatico boss Mike Batt would have improved proceedings.
Batt, for the first time on a Melua album, makes no appearance (save for a single co-write) - in his place William Orbit produces, and former Robbie Williams collaborator Guy Chambers contributes to several songs. This new line-up hasn't led to a considerable shift of dynamic, many songs contentedly shuffling at a mid-tempo pace. This is meant as no slight: Melua is the kind of artist who responds to demand, rather than one who writes to challenge her audience. As such The House is largely a success - those boxes, ticked. But it's disappointing that she's not edged that little further from her comfort zone given the promise of surprises.
Highlights are apparent, though. The Flood, the album's lead single, is a polished arrangement that reins in the temptation for bombast and is better for its restraint. Red Balloons, a co-write with Polly Scattergood, is so delicate the listener might want to hold their breath for its duration, for fear that exhaling would shatter its frail form. And when Melua's vocals convey real intimacy and vulnerability, such as on the closing title-track, she engages the listener with a rarefied grace.
When Melua reveals this sensitive side she's amongst the best artists in her easy-on-the-ear field, and she could yet surpass several of her own idols. But The House contains enough forgettable filler to suggest she's some way off delivering a career-defining canon classic.