“The Architect is a social observation record,” Paloma Faith claimed earlier this year – a bold statement given pop’s chequered past with political records. In a year when Katy Perry promised—and then failed to deliver—purposeful pop, Harry Styles claimed his hit ‘Sign Of The Times’ was about Trump and Brexit and Sam Smith (of all bloody people) wrote a song inspired by the atrocities in Mosul, it’s little wonder that a pop star claiming to have gone political elicits little more than an eye roll. “I’m coming at politics from the perspective of the common man or woman, observing why people are suffering, ” Faith said. “Each song on the record is about a different pocket of the socio-political world that I’ve been delving into.”
This political awakening isn’t particularly new. On her last tour, Faith enlisted left-wing journalist Owen Jones as an unlikely support act, encouraging her audiences to engage in a different, more hopeful, brand of politics. During the election, she was a vocal supporter of the Labour Party and has long been an outspoken critic of the Tories. Her foray into political pop might not be a surprising move, but it is a brave one.
So is Faith the woman to end political pop’s dry spell? The Architect begins with a manifesto of sorts, delivered (somewhat bizarrely) by Samuel L Jackson. On ‘Evolution’, he gives a rousing speech culminating in the lines “What are you waiting for? Do not be fearful of evolution, the time is now!” It’s a bold opening to follow Faith’s bold promise of an album that will grapple thoughtfully with the current political situation, a situation that, as we all know, is not so great.
So how does Faith meld pop and politics? On the album’s title track, things are kept vague. “I will forgive you, no I can not forget / And I will outlive you / I am the architect,” she sings, in what could be read equally as a response to the divide between older and younger generations in the wake of the Brexit vote or a lover’s tiff. It’s a far cry from the no-nonsense “Fuck the Tories!” soundbites we get from Faith when she’s off duty, but it’s a start. Positioning herself as the architect of the title, Faith suggests she—or more likely, we—are the builders of a better, brighter future.
‘Guilty’, the album’s Bond-esque second single, is vaguer still, its metaphors of “turning sweet love into poison” sounding more like a traditional love song than anything political. But the origins of the song are rooted in post-Brexit anxiety. “I was imagining what it must feel like to have voted for [Brexit] and then feeling like you made a mistake,” she wrote online. But—surely intentionally—this only comes across if you already know what the song is about. Without this knowledge, ‘Guilty’ is simply a sophisticated love song and nothing more.
Here lies the problem with Faith’s brand of politics. In person, she is fierce in her political beliefs, but on record she is watered down almost to the point of being apolitical. It’s only on the three spoken word interludes that Faith’s passion for change comes through and, tellingly, these are all delivered by third parties. Friend and former support act Owen Jones crops up on ‘Politics Of Hope’, delivering a snippet of a speech while Faith makes tea in the background. The clink of cutlery and hiss of the kettle add a domesticity that feels at once comfortable and comforting, not numbing the impact of Jones’ words, but making them feel less radical and more common sense. ‘Pawns’ enlists Faith’s backing singers, Baby N’Sola, Naomi Miller and Janelle Martin, who talk of feeling disillusioned by modern politics, describing voting as being “patted on the head and quietened” rather than an act that gives way to any real change.
Faith doesn’t quite follow through on her promise of exploring different socio-political pockets in each song, but this was always going to be quite a tall order. What she does do is deliver an album of well-crafted, diverse pop songs. The Architect is a colourful, varied album that encompasses a range of styles from the post-Winehouse neo-soul that made her famous (seen best on the sultry ‘Still Around’) to straight-up pop music, such as the polished lead single ‘Crybaby’. There’s also a fair bit of time-hopping, from the 60s girl group sound of ‘Lost and Lonely’ to the 70s disco of ‘Til I’m Done’ and the 80s synth-throb of ‘Kings and Queens’. The latter is a particular highlight, Faith embracing the purist pop peddled by Taylor Swift, the melody, sharp production and secondary school metaphors all reminiscent of some of Swift’s best.
As a pop album, there’s no denying The Architect‘s success. Aside from a few lulls (the John Legend featuring ‘I’ll Be Gentle’ and Sia-penned ‘Warrior’ both surprising duds), this is a record that maintains its momentum, constantly switching gear and swerving into new territory. Faith proves herself a dab-hand at genre-hopping, able to wind her showstopping vocals around even the trickiest of arrangements. She sounds every inch the polished pop star, even if this wasn’t necessarily what she was shooting for.
On penultimate track ‘WW3’, Faith asks “What kind of man gets a thrill from the life he’s taken?” over a stomping, jazzy accompaniment. It’s a late contender for best song of the album, a call to arms to build a better world from the ashes of the one we’ve destroyed, featuring a ghostly, detached voice sighing wistfully over the outro. Faith sounds sharp and determined as she sings of bombs and despair, though there is the feeling she could go further in her indictment of our ravaged world. Though she sings “I’m calling you out,” she falls short of actually doing this, staying light on the specifics and sticking to a broader – and perhaps more accessible – condemnation of war.
Paloma Faith has nobly pushed her boundaries on her fourth studio album, a record packed with big tunes to match her huge voice. Is The Architect the political ‘social observation’ album she promised? Well, not quite. Is it a very good album nonetheless? Absolutely.