Second albums are tough… especially if you’re a solo artist.
Scouse songwriter Nick Ellis’ first album, the sublime Daylight Ghosts, was critically acclaimed and placed the ex-Maybes singer firmly on the path to becoming (at the very least) a favourite musical son of the city. The question remained, though, could he follow it up with a sophomore effort that shaded his debut? Yes and no is the simple answer.
The truth lies, as ever, in the detail; but the broad strokes are that Adult Fiction is a fantastic listen. The songs still ebb and flow, the singing remains startling in its originality and the guitar work as beguiling as ever. Songs like The Blue Soul will charm you with their dexterity and directness (what a trick that is to pull off), while the likes of All Night Long, Your Love and She-Devil Woman colour in the noir landscapes Ellis usually paints, with their brushed drums and bouncing double bass. It’s that introduction of new instruments that represent the anomaly at the heart of Adult Fiction.
Ellis is a performer who grabs you in person and on record with his singular style. For brevity, we’ll forget the metaphors and simply say that if you can imagine Elvis Costello playing the guitar like John Martyn or Nick Drake, you’re halfway there. The progression of Ellis’ sound on this album has taken in tasteful contributions from others, but at what cost? The aforementioned songs featuring a rhythm section are strong, but it’s on the likes of Clockwatching and A Girl Called Desire – both performed solo and directly to tape inside Liverpool’s Gustaf Adolf’s Kyrka – where we hear the artist really open the vein.
First single Clockwatching is an age-old tale told tellingly and economically to a tantalising melody. The “falling for you” refrain that dominates the song is filled with truth and beauty, while the finger-picked melody compliments it perfectly. A Girl Called Desire, meanwhile, is a cracker that highlights the power and nuance within Ellis’ vocal range, whilst all the time paying strict attention to the tension at the heart of the story being sung with another beautiful guitar line. Having said all that, it’s Heartbreak City that is the stand-out, with its Springsteen-esque lyrics and attention-grabbing bridge warning “… don’t ever give your heart away, unless you never want it back”. It’s a breathtaking moment, in the middle of a truly great song, and places Ellis at the top table, confirming him as a songwriter of distinction.
That the song shares an atmosphere with the best moments of his first album doesn’t matter one bit – when you’re ahead of the chasing pack, standing still doesn’t necessarily mean being left behind.