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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

Blokeishly Extraordinary to an Hilarious Extent

Lewis Capaldi, Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent (Capitol)

On June 4, 2019, at the behest of my 33-year-old daughter Nina and with the essential assistance of Capitol Records publicists Ambrosia Healy and Lisa D'Angelo, I strolled over to the 1200-capacity Irving Plaza to see a U.K. pop singer I'd never heard of named Lewis Capaldi with Nina and her pal Val. We had terrific seats in the stage left balcony, and Nina never left hers for a second. Waiting for Capaldi to take the stage, I amused myself by jotting down every act Live Nation was presenting in the metro area till December, few of which I even recognized (and once when I did wondered who the fuck wanted to see Stiff Little Fingers at 60, how grotesque). Capaldi came on precisely at 9, a pudgy fellow in a messy haircut, loose jacket, forgettable shirt, black shoes, and white socks, and was on his game from note one. My only problem was the young woman shrieking every word of one called "Someone You Loved" in the general vicinity of my left ear, into which I inserted my index finger until she finally noticed and stopped.

For sure my neighbor wasn't the only one--in a crowd with plenty of guys in it, twentysomething women who knew all the words predominated, and within three or four songs I was exclaiming to my companions that this guy was something special. As I wrote D'Angelo the next morning: "I knew he'd be funny, but I wasn't prepared for how blokeish he'd be. You can do blokeish for guys, but for girls it's always been a no-no. Capaldi understands that for smart girls it can be a positive--this is a guy who really wants the girl to love him because he's nowhere near cute enough to be a romeo." Or slick, I should have added. Capaldi's Scots accent was so thick I had trouble understanding all his patter, which was delivered nonstop, but let me recount a single extreme example for the record: his strange story about taking a dump in a Central Park toilet where he was still clumsily "cleaning" himself when a nine-year-old opened the stall door and got the scare of his life. Does he tell a version of this every night? I wondered. Or had it actually just happened, perhaps that very day? Either way I felt I was encountering a pop original half a century post-Partridge Family with none of the discretion and twice the IQ--an original who had the crust to call his debut album Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent.

Although it's yet to impress many Stateside musical scorekeepers journalistic and otherwise, that debut was, to put it mildly, an enormous international hit. Having attracted precisely one U.S. review Metacritic could be bothered with, it's now passed what in the streaming era is called 16 million "album equivalent units" internationally, which is kind of an unclear number and still quite something. But though the singles "Before You Go" and particularly the touching and in fact credible miss-you-much song "Someone You Loved" have streamed in the billions, the album has yet to earn any RIAA precious-metal certifications. With the Covid touring drought at an end we hope is permanent, however, Capaldi has both scheduled an album with a follow-up title--Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent, out Friday from Capitol, and returned to tour here, beginning at Radio City Music Hall April 6. In addition he's occasioned a solid, thoughtful, yet you bet funny Netflix documentary called How I'm Feeling Now that's something like captivating when it details his Glasgow upbringing as the youngest child of a fishmonger and a nurse and something like controversial when it details his health issues--Capaldi's been diagnosed not just with depression, which the film unflappably reports has responded decisively to medication, but Tourette syndrome, which I'd say he makes the most of onstage especially now that it's under control.

And so the show began at a jammed Radio City Music Hall April 6, where Nina and I found ourselves well to the front and surrounded by premium seatholders--bizzers and journos, married couples with young kids, more guys than I would have figured, and many young women who didn't yet know all the new lyrics Capaldi showcased once he test drove his brand new imitation New Yawk accent via the freshly minted persona of one Joey Blowjob, whose favorite turn of phrase proved to be "fuckin' fagetaboutit." To me it looked like Capaldi was even pudgier (the meds, maybe?) and also like this didn't matter a whit to the expanding fanbase that had already fallen for for those platinum singles. Early in his career Capaldi inspired hater trash talk from guys who resented his way with gals--supposedly he was tuneless, juiceless, like that. And right, among the rough-textured he's no Otis Redding, who generates a liquidity even on such gruff classics as "Shake" and "Hard to Handle." But it turns out the "gravelly" that's become a descriptive of choice in Capaldi's U.K. coverage suits his truth-telling perfectly.

Which in turn is to say that Capaldi's blokishness extends beyond his looks to his sound--aurally as well as visually, he's no romantic hero compared even to putatively ordinary dreamboats from Garth Brooks to Drake to the Jonas Brothers (and right, for simplicity's sake I'm leaving the even more gifted as well as rather different Harry Styles out of this). Instead he has the chutzpah, as we put it here in the land of fagetaboutit, to be among other things a clown--and when you examine his songs a little more closely, a clown with a tragic sense of life that goes a lot deeper than greasepaint tears putting the final touch on a greasepaint grimace. This was apparent enough if you looked hard on his debut album, where his claim that his signature tearjerker "Someone You Love" is about his grandma rather than his girlfriend doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. But it's the basic thrust of Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent, which just in terms of songwriting savoir-faire proves the kind of excellent album that only a best-selling newcomer with a sense of mission would try to make and only a surprisingly talented bloke is much of a bet to bring off.

Compositionally, Broken by Desire to Be Heavenly Sent has the classic shape and pace of a first-rate long-player: 12 tracks, the first six all aces, then a mild seven-eight-nine dip ready and eager to be righted by a strong three-track finale. As is generally the idea, the most fetching melodies tumble by fetchingly up top and then take a break before bringing the album to a proper close at the very end. And as is also the idea although not always the reality, the lyrics sharpen the enjoyment quotient of tunes that sound like folkish power ballads for an aural world where hip-hop never happened. On his first album Capaldi was obliged to play an ordinary fella because despite the plentiful talent that made recording worth a try that's what he was. Now he's a big enough star in Europe to record in L.A., so when he sings "Right now you're probably by the ocean/While I'm still out here in the rain" you figure the ocean is in Cali and the rain is in Glasgow--and also figure that when he sings "I wanna say that I wish you never left/Oh but instead I only wish you the best," that is indeed the best he can do under the circumstances. The album is full of such plain-spoken words of wisdom: "I bring her coffee in the morning/She brings me inner peace" but also "Haven't you ever been in love before?/If you knew what I know you'd be terrified"; the upful "I'm gonna love the hell out of you/Take all the pain that you're goin' through" only then the despondently well-turned "No sense of self but self-obsessed."

I'm aware that even love lyrics as plainly adept as these have long been seen as simplistic by commentators who consider themselves more sophisticated than Lewis Capaldi and may even be so. But you know me or maybe you don't--I've made my living mocking that kind of rank-pulling since before most such commentators were born. Whether Lewis Capaldi can put his wisdom into real-life practice who can say--for as long as I've been thinking about such matters I've been painfully aware that the life of the touring musician is hell on true romance and sheer fame not a whole lot better. But permit me to think back to that gal who loved his lyrics so much she made me put my finger in my ear. Or better still, how about the young man who thought maybe he could make some time with said gal by buying a couple of Lewis Capaldi tickets?

And It Don't Stop, May 17, 2023