‘I have never been a beautiful boy. Never liked the sound of my own voice. I wasn’t cool when I was in my teens, I never slept, but I did have dreams.’ – Bones
Moon Landing is the fourth album by James Blunt. It’s an album about dreams, longing, first love. About looking in the mirror and seeing the boy you were, the man you are – and learning to be comfortable with that, flaws and all. About getting back to basics and rediscovering the power of music to communicate emotion directly and honestly, without too much polish or complication.
‘There's just something romantic, old-school and lonely about the moon landings,’ he explains. ‘A nostalgic memory of something huge that we can hardly believe we once achieved, and for some sad reason, can't achieve again – like first love.’
We all think we know about James Blunt, of course. But those who’ve been off-planet, here’s a recap on the story so far. Born in an army hospital in Tidworth, Wiltshire. Educated in Harrow, then Bristol. Signed up for four years in the Army. Ended up serving six, in Canada, Kosovo and then London. Spotted playing at the South by Southwest Music Festival, signed up by Linda Perry to her new label Custard. Recorded an album, Back To Bedlam, with Tom Rockrock in LA. Released it to universal indifference. And then the third single, You’re Beautiful, came out.
And so there it was: one big hit, two more albums, three world tours, four number one singles, five Grammy nods (plus two BRITS, two Ivor Novellos and a host of MTV awards), a six-piece band, seven whole years on the road, eight kiss and tells, and then the numbers spiral out of control: nearly 17m albums and 20 million singles sold worldwide. Plus over 5m Facebook ‘likes’, 250m plays on Spotify and an astonishing 257m YouTube views.
What do those figures mean? Some amazing experiences – some youthful excesses. The chance to use his high profile to do some good, supporting charities such as Medicines Sans Frontiers and Help For Heroes (including three foiled attempts to play in Afghanistan for serving soldiers), and to draw attention to the issue of climate change.
But to a lad who picked up a guitar and wrote his first song at 14, wrote his university dissertation on the music industry, took that guitar to the war in Kosovo, and always dreamed of making music, what success has meant, more than anything, is freedom. ‘What it allowed me to do was go on tour with a band. That was absolutely amazing, and so I recorded our second album, All The Lost Souls, with that band, and make a deeper, richer album. Then I recorded the third album, Some Kind Of Trouble, in the UK with lots of musicians and a fancy studio, and enjoyed making a more upbeat album. I picked up an electric guitar and did the kind of songs that I’d heard as a teenager but couldn’t replicate on my acoustic. It was fun playing catch-up, exploring all the things I wanted to do and be - all the other musicians I wanted to sound like.’
But for Moon Landing, he wanted to go back to sounding… like himself. Initial sessions saw him working with a real musician’s producer – Martin Terefe, and these recordings have an undeniable freedom and celebration in their sound. ‘I was playing a lot of ukulele - mainly because it makes me look bigger,’ says James. ‘We got on so well we could easily have done a whole album together and more.’ But then James chose to strip it back further - he went back to LA, staying with his friend Carrie Fisher as he did for the first album (Back To Bedlam was her title suggestion, and the vocals for Goodbye My Lover were recorded in her bathroom). He also returned to producer Tom Rothrock, and to working with just the two of them in the studio, occasionally bringing in selected musicians from the Back To Bedlam sessions to fill in where James’ own skills weren’t enough. ‘I’m a useless drummer,’ he says cheerfully. ‘And I didn’t play the bass much, either. But I can find my way round almost anything else.’
It was meeting between two old friends, making music for more than just the joy of it – but for the need. ‘Tom and I just sat in his studio for a few months, feeling our way. He has an array of old vintage instruments, and I went around playing them one at a time. It’s a much more personal album, between him and me: about us finding where it all started, and where we are now. I’m not trying to prove anything, I haven’t been trying to second-guess the audience or over-thinking things. It’s just me alone in a sound-booth, looking through the glass at Tom, trying to express myself simply and honestly. This is the album I would have recorded, perhaps, if Back To Bedlam hadn’t sold anything.’
The result is a collection of songs that are raw, direct, and emotionally honest. There are songs of searing self-examination (Always Hate Me, The Only One), and others that sound like soundtracks for films not yet made, like Miss America - a song inspired by the tragic death of Whitney Houston, to explore the idea of how fame makes us feel like we know that artist personally. From unabashed declarations of love (the jaunty Postcards, the yearning Blue On Blue), to what must be one of the most tender break-up songs ever, the achingly lovely Face The Sun, Moon Landing is a thing of pure, understated beauty. And, as an introduction, and like all of James Blunt’s best work, the melody for first single ‘Bonfire Heart’ will quickly etch itself into your consciousness, and you’ll soon be humming along to the sweetly reflective verses, and anthemic chorus.
You can never go back to the start, but some things you can rediscover. ‘In my teens, I found freedom in music. It’s a way of dreaming, a way to express who you are to the audience, but just as importantly, to yourself. It has taken me a while to understand it, to feel it again - and start dreaming again.’