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Blunt's shaking his hit

`You're Beautiful' was huge in 2005, but critics and parodists have made it clear that the novelty song has worn off. The British singer-songwriter doesn't mind. He's moving on.

July 01, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

JAMES BLUNT has a steady stare and an even steadier smirk, and you suspect he needs both to keep standing in the spotlight. It's not easy being the guy whose place in pop culture (at least in American pop culture) begins and ends with the 2005 monster hit "You're Beautiful," a novelty concoction of helium and syrup that made him about as respectable as Vanilla Ice to critics and rock snobs.

But "You're Beautiful" made Blunt the first British artist to hit No. 1 on the U.S. singles chart since Elton John did it in 1997, and Blunt's album, "Back to Bedlam," sold 2.6 million copies in the U.S., so clearly somebody loved that song. Blunt himself views the song as a door that opened and will now allow him a major stage to show himself as more than a one-hit wonder.

"Yes, right, I'm a two-hit wonder, right? That's brilliant." The man who has been frequently photographed clubbing with supermodels flashed his high-wattage grin, then got serious. "For me, the pressure is off. I did an album before that sold over 11 million worldwide, which I won't ever do again. It's just not going to happen. So I knew I had a choice of either trying to match that and please everyone or to recognize that I can make music to please myself. And that's why I'm excited about this album."

Blunt's new CD, "All the Lost Souls," isn't due in stores until Sept. 17, but he and his label, Atlantic Records, are eager to play the new music for journalists and chip away at the stigma of "You're Beautiful." That's why Blunt sat down in an L.A. studio on a recent afternoon and played the first four songs off the CD. They are each one-take performances by Blunt and his now-veteran band, and the songs are not unlike Coldplay or David Gray in their earnest lunge for emotional revelation.

"They sum up where I am now, personally, and reflect where I have been before, while musically, I think, this album is where I can go from here," Blunt said. The songs, he said, "open a lot of musical doors."

A study in tattered denim and fashionable scruff, the 35-year-old Blunt sat back and closed his eyes and listened to the new music with his note-taking visitor. The first single is "1973," a curious title for a chap born in Tidworth, Wiltshire, a year later. "Yes, I know, but it rhymed." After the final note, he was told he sounds like the lost Bee-Gee and his face lit up. "Absolutely. I think as you go through there, there's also some Fleetwood Mac in there, definitely some Elton going on, the Beatles of course, and some others. Don McLean, Steely Dan perhaps."

It's not every artist who races to list all the influences of a looming album -- some are leery of coming off more as a tribute act or collage artist than an individual voice. But as a star, Blunt shrugs a lot more than he struts. Maybe it's his background; he was an armored reconnaissance officer with the peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and rose to the rank of captain in the British army before he traded in a rifle for a guitar.

Linda Perry, the star producer, tapped Blunt as a candidate for success, and her instincts again proved true. "You're Beautiful" started off in the U.S. as a sort of boutique, idiosyncratic singer-songwriter track, the sort that KCRW-FM (89.9) might file with Damien Rice or Badly Drawn Boy on the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" playlist. But as the song caught the ear of Top 40, its helium novelty became a target of backlash.

"Weird" Al Yankovic parodied it ("You're Pitiful"), and the actress Mary-Louise Parker, in an essay on wimpy music in Esquire magazine, opined: "All due respect, 'You're Beautiful' kind of makes me want to hurl." A poll of British music on Yahoo! Music named the song the most annoying ever recorded. Then there was Brit pop icon Paul Weller, who told the Daily Mirror of London: "I would rather eat my own [feces] than perform with Blunt."

Blunt smirked and stared when asked about being defined by one song, especially one with so many daggers thrown at it. "Here in the States, that may be the case, but in the rest of the world I've had four hits. My first album was heard by many people as a complete work outside this country. I've been very happy with the success I've had here. I'm ready for a different kind of success now, though."


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