The fine line between sweet and saccharine is one that Gavin James spends the majority of Bitter Pill wobbling either side of. Everyone’s individual mileage for his style will vary, given the way the tone of his album paradoxically seems very consistent, yet can bend itself from earnest to cheesy in a moment.
Gavin James has been touring with Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran since his winning the Choice Music Irish Song of the Year Award in 2013, and their influence on his style shows strongly. Pre-release single Bitter Pill shows the Sheeran influence most of all, featuring James singing of romantic longing – “seeing you, missing you / such a bitter pill to swallow” – over languid acoustic strumming, and sweeping strings. It sounds dramatic, but James’ voice sounds slightly too polished for his emotion to be authentic. It falls on the saccharine side of the line, sounding like too much empty drama without the feeling to back it up.
The opening track, For You fares better. The strange, sampled sounding percussion at the beginning of the track is pleasingly different from the fairly standard hip-hop and pop drums that drive the other songs. The minimal instrumentation allows James’ histrionics to sound honest and emotional, instead of bogged down by manipulative drama. Nervous begins with plucked guitar and gentle piano, but the breakbeat-inspired drums that enter in the second minute lend the track an energy that allows it to transcend it’s “ooh-ooh” chorus.
Bitter Pill is an album that wants to make you feel something, and that’s both its greatest strength and weakness. Some tracks feel like James is singing from the heart, and are suitably moving, but some overburden him with needlessly bombastic arrangements, that push the songs from sweet to manipulative and overbearing. When his producers allow him to simply exist in the sonic space, Gavin James is at his best, but it seems that now they don’t quite trust him to sing on his own.