The 'You're Beautiful' Boy: Soooo Sweet James Blunt

James Blunt uses his piercing vocals on the hit single
James Blunt uses his piercing vocals on the hit single "You're Beautiful." (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Don't hate James Blunt because he's beautiful.

Hate him because he sounds like his underwear is three sizes too small.

The British crooner opened his U.S. tour Monday at the 9:30 club, where he introduced "Tears and Rain" by noting that he'd written the bereft song "so incredibly high that none of the men out there can sing it." Not that there were many guys floating in the sea of body splash and estrogen. Still, the dreamy Blunt -- looking like he'd just walked in from an American Eagle catalogue shoot -- invited the many swooning women in the room to provide supporting vocals, since, he said, "I sing like a little girl."

And that Blunt did, using high notes to underscore just how anguished he is. "I guess it's time I run far, far away, find comfort in pain," he sang, his voice cracking slightly as it strained to reach ever higher.

Meanwhile, a certain Washington Post music critic commenced to seethe.

Enough already, boys!

There's an upper-register pandemic in popular music, where sensitive-guy pop-rockers from Blunt to Coldplay's Chris Martin and Maroon 5's Adam Levine are enjoying major success by singing romantic if lachrymose lyrics in effeminate falsettos and what's technically called "head voice."

While there's nothing inherently wrong with singing up high, where plenty of emotion resides, there's a fine line between mastery and turgidity. Prince, Roy Orbison, Smokey Robinson and Jeff Buckley these guys ain't, as they too often come across as affected and overwrought -- not to mention kinda boring.

Blunt is the latest to ride those high notes up the charts: His debut album, "Back to Bedlam," has become a fixture in the Top 10, and his ubiquitous "You're Beautiful" (coming soon to a prom near you!) just reached No. 1 on the singles chart. Also proving that he's Officially Arrived Here, the onetime Royal Armed Forces captain with the pouty lips, high cheekbones and puppy-dog eyes has even emoted on "Oprah," no doubt inspiring thousands of housewives to add "Back to Bedlam" to their Target shopping lists. Right alongside Barry Manilow's latest, of course.

There's no middle ground with Blunt, thanks to his sentimentality and that polarizing voice. The accolades section of his CV says it all: After he won two Brit Awards, for best pop act and best British male singer, Blunt suffered the indignity of having "Back to Bedlam" named 2005's worst album at the recent NME Awards.

Truth be told, Blunt isn't that bad. A fine pop craftsman with an ear for melody, he can turn a phrase -- even if he does rhyme "Dorian Gray" with "I've heard what they say" -- and he obviously knows how to tug at the heartstrings with his heart-sore lyrics. He also has a pleasant tone and good voice control, both in the studio and onstage, where his melancholy songs sound basically the same as they do on the CD (though the album itself is afflicted by sameness).

At the 9:30, Blunt performed the 10-track "Back to Bedlam" in its entirety -- including the antiwar "No Bravery," which seemed out of place (especially with its accompanying video montage of tanks and graves and bombed-out buildings). A gorgeous cover of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" was by far the best of the additions; in fact, with Blunt's four-piece backing band turning slightly discordant and finally flashing some teeth, it was the highlight of the otherwise predictable 70-minute set.

But the crowd came to hear the hits, and none generated a more frenzied response than the show closer, "You're Beautiful." As with most of Blunt's compositions, there's an undercurrent of sadness to the yearning lyrics. But Monday, the song sounded more like a soaring celebration -- an odd thing for a tune that ends with Blunt declaring, "It's time to face the truth, I will never be with you."

Blunt's fans are with him all the way. Even when they shouldn't be. "I know you've come here for a good time," he said. "Well, this next song is miserable." He then sat at the piano for a solo performance of "Goodbye My Lover," which is normally a quiet tear-jerker. But his fans sang along -- loudly, and off key -- undermining the devastating song and suggesting that maybe misery really does love company. Either that or everybody but me loves sensitive guys who sing like little girls.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company