Clare Maguire: Light After Dark (Album Review)

I didn’t get it at first.

My first listen to the growling alt-country-indie-electronica-whatever-you-want-to-call-it of “Ain’t Nobody,” Clare Maguire‘s debut single released in mid-October of last year, left me feeling cold.

The song’s accompanying abstract video proved even more perplexing, featuring a ghoulish looking Maguire belting out the track from a lone chair in the desert, her hair wildly whipping in the wind.

“It was all a bit too gothic for me,” the gorgeous chanteuse would later tell the BBC regarding her debut, which wound up stalling at #75 on the Singles Chart.

But upon hearing the first few seconds of “Shield and Sword” –the lead track off of Light After Dark, Maguire’s debut album released on February 28–it became almost instantly clear: The Clare Maguire experience is best served in full.

Part of the reason, no doubt, is due to the fact that the singer’s debut is almost exclusively co-scribed and produced by one person: Fraser T Smith (aside from the song “Freedom,” which was crafted by popular German producer, Crada).

Smith has previously proven himself to be a brilliant pop producer with the tiny, glittery gems cradled within some of the past year’s best records, including Kylie Minogue‘s Aphrodite (“Everything Is Beautiful”), Taio Cruz‘s Rokstarr (“Break Your Heart”), Ellie Goulding‘s Lights (“Your Biggest Mistake”) and Adele‘s 21 (“Set Fire To The Rain”).

With Light After Dark, the UK songsmith was afforded first major run as a pop producer.

Accordingly, the album is incredibly cohesive. Like his work with Adele, the majority of Light After Dark is colored by dramatic piano and strings, hard-hitting drum beats, twinkling, subtle undercurrents of electronica and devastating choruses.

Maguire, the 23-year-old English vocalist at the heart of this production, commands a deep, full-bodied voice: When she wants to, she can truly let loose and blow with a deafening howl; at other times she trembles, her chilly, operatic vibrato urgently fluttering around her lyrics of heartache and defeat.

“You and I felt so good to begin with, didn’t we? / But now it seems there’s far too many adverts in between,” Maguire announces of the top of “Shield and Sword,” her voice quivering with a certain rage: “You take the shield, I’ll take the sword / I no longer love you, no longer love you,” she later howls during the song’s haunting, catchy chorus, drowning in strings and crashing piano chords.

Her characteristic voice brings to mind at least a dozen or more of contemporary pop’s strongest and most distinctive songstresses; a cross between the whimsical Stevie Nicks and Florence + The Machine and the dramatic, diva-licious delivery of Cher and Annie Lennox.

In some ways, Light After Dark also feels like a return to the mid-’90’s female singer-songwriter revolution: It’s in the sorrowful croon of “Sweet Lie” that brings Natalie Merchant‘s haunting voice to mind, and the exposed nerve of “Break These Chains” that evokes the trembling angst of Fiona Apple.

There are no duds on this record (although “Ain’t Nobody” proves to be one of the album’s less accessible moments–no doubt a poor choice for lead single). From the soaring, chill-inducing rallying cry of “Freedom” and “Happiest Pretenders” to slower numbers like “Bullet,” a crushing piano-and-strings torch song sprinkled with subtle whisps of electronica.

Much as with the musical output of the aforementioned divas, Light After Dark is largely a sorrowful experience, however triumphant and jubilant the instruments may sound. She sings of waging battles, losing the crown, crying, surrendering, and taking the fall. “You shot me down / down, down I go,” Maguire sorrowfully trembles during “Bullet.”

Even with “I Surrender,” one of the album’s crowning achievements, Maguire makes romance sound more like the weary cease-fire after years of waging war. “I’m letting go, waving this white flag / I’ve given up the fight, given up the fight / ‘Cause you made me surrender,” Maguire belts out above the whirling, piano-tinged chorus, twirling above a disco-lite undercurrent. It’s either a long lost demo dug up from a 1978 Fleetwood Mac studio session, or the greatest disco throbber Sophie Ellis-Bextor never recorded: Your call.

Light After Dark is a sophisticated adult contemporary pop album, rich with subtle disco influences and catchy melodies, complex emotion, and gorgeous, spine-tingling howls and cries. It’s the kind of grown-up record Cher could only dream of producing for her upcoming comeback, and the kind of debut that doesn’t just roll around every few months.

While her feel-good mainstream pop contemporary Jessie J seems to be soaking in the most of the accolades surrounding her own BBC Sound of 2011 ranking, it’s Maguire, the much-hyped list’s fourth runner-up, that offers up a much denser, richer offering that will certainly go on to shine as one of the finest releases of the year.

Light After Dark was released on February 28. (iTunes UK)

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