A lot of music that is made today is hard to put into a single, all-encompassing category or a specific genre, not because it is unfocused or unsure of what it wants to be but because it knows exactly what it wants to be. And what it wants to be is unhampered by the rules and regulations that were set down by previous music generations in much more tribal times. Maytech recording artist, Jonathan May, has adopted such an approach towards the music he makes and the latest release, a 9 track album called My Star-Crossed Spirit, is the sound of what modern, mainstream music can be.
It is easy to describe what is going on here in broad descriptive strokes. It is certainly soulful to the point of being sultry, smouldering and sensitive and it is built on pop sensibilities, not obvious ones but the songs definitely have plenty of addictive qualities. There is also something of the late-night vibe about them, a general, down-tempo, lazy and relaxed feeling, spacious and understated, like an intimate conversation or confessional with a close friend or lover… both potential or soon to be ex.
But it is when you look closer that you see the real qualities of the songs. As always, it is a close examination that reveals understanding and that understanding allows insight and develops respect.
For an album that runs on a fairly melancholic groove, it is appropriate that a song such as Don’t Wait For Me leads us in. Skittering, almost trap-like percussion and bass pulses drive things along as May questions a selfish girlfriend, a fractured relationship and trust strained to breaking point. (Trust, or lack of it, is a common theme on the album.) And as an opening salvo, it sets the scene, style and tone of the album perfectly.
By the time you get to You Don’t Want Me, you realise that this is a break-up album, or at least an album of many breakups. Here, the ticking beats and swirling, half-heard electronica driving a musing on another relationship (or perhaps the same one as before) that hasn’t worked out, another person who has let him down. There is a real use of space that frames the song, a device he uses throughout the album but that is applied particularly well here. Between the bottom-end beats, and the vocals and sonics that ebb and flow above it, there is a layer of emptiness which in indie or rock music would be full of more obvious riffs and repetative motifs. Here though, May keeps those layers devoid of musical clutter, the result is a place where atmospheres pool and percolate, where anticipation waits between the fading out of one beat and the arrival of the next and the pause for breath between the words. And this space is a clever musical trick that seems to make the listener fill in the blanks and hear what they want to hear. The power of suggestion as an art form.
Until I’m Gone is even more spacious, the vocals moving between the direct communication of the lyrics and the use of voice as an instrument, again with the unsaid and the unheard weaving its way through the more solid structures like an evening mist. When The Time Comes blends urban beats with a neo-classical piano line, a sort of relaxed ballad meets a more traditional Nocturne, the meeting of the urban and the urbane, perhaps.
I’m Done begins to lift the energy levels somewhat, still running on the now-familiar reserved pace but it seems to be a moment of both realisation and resolution and when I’m Gone builds on this, both musically and via the lyrics, the album, and the story which runs through it, is put to bed perfectly.
This is a young man talking about first relationships, of loves and longing and loss, the sound of someone learning about such things through experience and then turning those experiences into lyrics and lyrics into song. As an album, it is whistful and reflective, full of regret but stopping short of self-pity. It is something that we can all relate to whatever our age, as much of what is being described here will remain and ring true throughout our lives.
The spaciousness of the music allows you to appreciate the mechanics of the songs as they play out before you, the working out in the margin that you don’t normally get to see. And what you see is deft production, all the braver for the sparseness of some of the music. And this sparseness allows May‘s soft and surprisingly (given his age) worldly voice to work its magic wandering between understated soulfulness and an almost spoken delivery.
Musically, it is perfect for today’s market. It occasionally glances back to soul traditions and a rich pop past, 90’s R&B and more modern urban creations, hip-hop beats and pop accessibility. There are even moments that ambient artists, especially those leaning into more beat beatification, would love to lay claim to. But mainly, it looks to a bright new future. One where music is genre-less, uniting myriad sounds and style and playing by its own rules…or no rules at all.
My Star-Crossed Spirit is a great album, one that any young artist could rightly be proud of. The fact that Jonathan May is still in his teens, makes the achievement all the more impressive. And, if he is making albums like this at such an early stage in his recording career, imagine what we have to look forward to in a few years, or five, ten….or twenty!